Alternative water sources: the only option in (small) town

Decentralized or communal water sources are officially labelled as “alternative”, but often represent the only affordable option for many urban residents. These systems require similar attention as centralised water provision, argues the SMALL research team on the basis of experiences in Mozambique and Uganda

Quite some research efforts have been invested in how water service provision can be improved in megacities in the Global South, and how also marginalized households can receive access to potable water. However, water service provision in rapidly urbanizing small towns have received thus far less attention. This blog explores what happens with access to water when small towns ‘grow big’.

Often water utilities ‘downscale’ management models for water service provision in large cities to organize water supply in smaller towns. However, because of the different histories, resulting in disparate infrastructural arrangements, settlement patterns and livelihoods, these models often do not adequately fit the contexts of these smaller towns. For this reasons – within the SMALL project – we have carried out collaborative research to investigate what happens with water service provision when small towns urbanize. We studied in an interdisciplinary manner the access to water in small towns in Uganda and Mozambique taking into account the perspectives of water utilities as well as the experiences and views of the residents of these towns. What qualifies as a small town is a whole debate in itself and not so arbitrary as it might seem. For this blog the most important feature for identifying a small town is that – in response to a growing population – water service provision is taken over by a (public or private) water utility, while before the public services (including water) in these towns used to be provided by government departments responsible for rural development. This blog will mainly focus on the consequences of these changes in service provision on the access to water for residents in various neighbourhoods in these towns.

Tinkering with water pipes in Moamba (Mozambique)

In Mozambique we studied the dynamics in the town of Moamba, where a private water utility is responsible for the water service provision. This water utility inherited infrastructure that has – since it initiation during colonial times – gone through series of extensions and rehabilitations resulting in a patchwork of pipes, valves and reservoirs. The functioning of this water supply network is far from ideal and not even fully known by the engineers who designed it, nor the operators who work with it every single day. As such, it requires daily tinkering and regular adjustments to deliver water to the various parts of the town. We documented that these creative engagements with the infrastructure are not only carried out by engineers and operators, but that residents themselves also get actively involved in these acts of tinkering. For instance, households in a marginalized neighbourhood in Moamba dug up an old abandoned pipeline, carried it to their neighbourhood and reused it to connect their houses to the water supply network. These households used to rely primarily on public standpipes to buy water for domestic use but, since the private water utility gave preference to financially more attractive in-house connections, these public standpipes were no longer maintained. This made these unconnected households desperate and since many could not afford the connection fee and the water utility was not quick in extending the infrastructure in this neighbourhood, they organized themselves to connect their houses.

The utility turned a blind eye to this collective effort as it also helped them as their performance is measured among others in the number of connected households. However, the recycled pipe regularly bursts and even though the households are now paying clients of the utility, the maintenance of this self-installed pipeline is not uncontested. The residents are still expected to invest in its repair and if they take too long the water utility threatens to disconnect the pipe. Salient detail is that this neighbourhood is located on an elevated terrain and the water in the pipes regularly flows back by gravity when the water pressure drops as result of problems in operating the network. This means that the frequent leakage of the recycled pipe may pose a considerable risk for reduced water quality, not only for the residents in the vicinity of the burst but also for other parts of the town located downstream of this neighbourhood. 

Protecting urban springs in Bushenyi-Ishaka (Uganda)

Neighbours working on repairing the self-installed recycled pipeline in Moamba, Mozambique (Pictures: Luis Miguel Silva-Novoa Sanchez, 2017).

In Uganda we studied the implications of access to water in a small town called Bushenyi-Ishaka where water provision was handed over to a public water utility. Since long, protected springs have been the main source of water for the residents of this town and outside the city centre only relatively few houses are connected to the piped water network. These protected springs have been primarily built by the government agency responsible for rural development and kept clean by neighbourhood committees. Some protected springs have been built by individual households yet often allowed to be used by neighbours. Typically, the springs are protected in the sense that concrete structures channel the shallow groundwater flow through a sand filter bed and an outlet pipe and upstream an area is fenced to avoid pollution by animals and people. In the handing over of the responsibilities of water service provision to the water utility, there is ambiguity about who is responsible for the repair and maintenance of these protected springs. The utility argues that they are only responsible for the centralized piped water system as they cannot guarantee the water quality of the decentralized water sources; while according to the rural development agency they are no longer allowed – nor receive have budget – to maintain water sources within the area of operation of the utility. In the meantime, the residents struggle to maintain the springs and several have broken down, causing risks of contamination. With the growing population, the organization to collectively care for these springs has become more challenging and the risks of pollution – e.g. from overflowing latrines and grazing cattle – have increased. Since the extension of the water supply network goes much slower than required to reach all houses in a reasonable time frame, the water utility has invested in the recent years in constructing public standpipes in the different neighbourhoods. However, the people operating the standpipes charge more than the reduced tariffs set by the utility. As a result, the residents end up paying more for water at these standpipes than if they would have an in-house connection. Yet, the springs are not only so popular because the water often is for free, many residents also prefer the taste and reliability of the flow of this water. The water utility – which is a public entity but largely operates on basis of private sector principles, including being expected to recover its costs – tries to convince people to opt for their water by pointing out the health risks of using the springs. However, the question is whose interests are served with this campaign, especially since (limited) water quality analysis shows that contamination of water mainly happens inside the households where water is stored in drums. This is done also with water that comes from in-house taps since the water in the network is sometimes interrupted or comes with low pressure. The water quality that people consume is thus perhaps not so dependent on the source of the water and the concern of the water utility has perhaps more to do with getting paying clients.   

Alternative water resources as the only option in town

These two cases raise the question of how to supply reliable water to households in vastly growing small towns. Water infrastructure is not constructed overnight and recovering the costs of such investments – or the maintenance and operation of it – is highly unrealistic. In public policies and mainstream literature, decentralized and/or communal water sources in urbanized areas are often labelled ‘alternative’ water sources, namely sources that may be handy in case of emergency but should not be supported. But alternative for whom and alternative to what? As our cases illustrate, for many residents – especially marginalized households – these are often their only (affordable) options. So by disinvesting in maintaining these sources of water, these households are left behind. Perhaps we need to question why centralized water distribution and in-house connections remain the ultimate aim, even if it remains an illusion for many in the foreseeable future. Centralized water systems might better fit the management goals within a neoliberal ideology but fail to provide inclusive water services on the ground. Therefore we need to urgently refocus our attention to public investments in both centralized and decentralized water provision – including safe storage of water in-house – to ensure that all citizens – including residents of small towns – receive the quantity and quality of water that they deserve.

The project SMALL is supported by by IHE Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DUPC2). Usual disclaimers apply.

Cite this blog post
Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum (2021, April 19). Alternative water sources: the only option in (small) town. FLOWs. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum

Jeltsje Sanne Kemerink-Seyoum is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Water Governance at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. She has a combined background in civil engineering and social sciences and engages in research that foregrounds inequities in water distributions.

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