Sanitation in small towns: lessons from three successful projects

3 min read
The old, and now disused, toilet blocks at the Guse Primary School. With H&M's Conscious Foundation funding, WaterAid Tanzania in collaboration with the Diocese of Mbulu Development Department (DMDD), have constructed new toilet blocks and sanitation  ...
Image: WaterAid/ Eliza Deacon

As the world urbanises fast, supporting small towns and cities to build their capacity to provide adequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services is crucial to reaching everyone. Rémi Kaupp shares key common lessons from three urban sanitation projects.

We know small towns and secondary cities hold half of the world’s urban population, yet they receive far less attention than do large cities and capitals. In practice, this often means that in smaller towns basic services such as water and sanitation lag behind in reach and quality. The capacity of central and local government to organise WASH services is low or not adapted to the needs of these rapidly growing urban centres, which increasingly concentrates poverty within them. Municipalities and utilities are often under-staffed and under-funded, making matters worse.

Growing populations need growing attention

At WaterAid, we are increasingly focusing on smaller towns in our urban work, in which we focus on building the capacities of municipalities and service providers to deliver WASH services to everyone, focusing on the poorest and most marginalised people.

Three recent projects in particular are showing, through three different approaches, how it is possible to improve sanitation. In these three learning notes (and a summary if you are busy) we describe the projects and what we have learned from them:

  • In Sakhipur, Bangladesh: improvements across the whole sanitation chain, notably the installation of a co-composting plant, thanks to long-term work with authorities and residents.
  • In 20 towns of Ethiopia: a capacity-building initiative aimed at town utilities, to help them turn around and start considering sanitation options (described here in more detail).
  • In Babati, Tanzania: an action research project to co-create a sanitation and hygiene plan between authorities and residents (see the full research).

What are the common success factors?

The projects were all different and we encourage you to look at each learning note, but we noted that they had several success factors in common. Here are five in which we played a significant role:

  1. Good quality technical support – from WaterAid or from well-chosen academic and industry partners, using a range of support methods, such as mentoring.
  2. Fostering political momentum and ownership for sanitation – by understanding local incentives and blockages and working with sanitation champions.
  3. A modern, town-wide approach to sanitation – for instance, with circular economy principles (Bangladesh), linking solid and liquid waste management, suggesting alternatives to sewers through training (Ethiopia) and scenario planning (Tanzania).
  4. Creative partnerships – such as involving mentor utilities (Ethiopia), agricultural authorities (Bangladesh) and research institutions (Tanzania).
  5. Shit-flow diagrams – these have proven to be a particularly effective tool for gathering initial data (especially when involving officials in data collection), advocacy and initial planning.

These projects have all led to follow-on projects, which are incorporating changes that reflect what we have learned, so there will be more to share soon!

Rémi Kaupp is Urban Sanitation and Resilience Programme Advisor at WaterAid. He tweets as @RemKau.