Understanding the new rurality in Latin America: how can we respond to it in the water sector?

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As development practitioners, a common mistake we may fall into is devising well-intentioned solutions based on an “outdated” understanding of the country or sectoral context.  

In the previous blog, we discussed the water supply and sanitation (WSS) sector challenges which are persistently looming over rural areas in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).  In this piece, we continue to sketch the “new rurality” by considering new trends and developments witnessed which are altering the rural landscape—and which may require new or revised sector reforms to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 6.

So, what has changed or progressed in the rural areas and small towns in LAC? Many practitioners fail to recognize is that despite persistent challenges, the rural context of today is highly different than the last decade.

  • Rapid urbanization and sustained economic growth have changed the rural environment. The “new rurality” concept is foremost characterized by the shift from an agrarian model where the society was organized around primary activities, towards a society more articulated with the environment and the urban market. Over 2000-2012 agriculture’s share in the LAC economy decreased by 6%, which alters the income composition of rural households (less than 40% of families depend on agricultural activities). However, some countries “re-agriculturalized” over the period, due in part to the commodities boom, predominantly El Salvador, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Uruguay. 
  • There is a growing number of intermediate cities and small towns. Despite limited statistics on the exact number of small towns in LAC, and recognizing there are varying definitions of “small cities” per country, Peru estimates there are 644 small towns with populations between 2,001 to 30,000 inhabitants and Mexico counts 5,000 small towns with a population between 2,500 and 15,000 inhabitants. Regardless, it is understood that the quality and management and WSS services are deficient in small towns which are not serviced by WSS utilities. In turn, a decrease in the migration of large urban cities has been witnessed; instead, people are increasingly migrating to intermediate cities and small towns. Intermediate cities—predominantly defined as those towns with between 100,000 and one million inhabitants—are gaining prominence in LAC. It is estimated that intermediate cities are currently home to 32% of Latin Americans. Intermediate cities play a vital role in increasing national and regional productivity and competitiveness; some estimates indicate that they may comprise up to 17% of GDP (CAF, 2019). Above all, intermediate cities may play a crucial role in closing WSS gaps between rural and urban areas.
  • The physical distance between urban and rural areas has been reduced, while virtual connectivity has improved. Rural poverty has seen a reduction from 63% to 53% in the first years of the decade, among others attributable to a broad improvement in connectivity and communications reaching rural areas, and improved access to information and communication technology (ICT). Access to mobile telephony in Peru increased from 2% in 2005 to more than 50% by 2012. This change is also reflected in the improvement of road infrastructure.
  • The impact of climate change on water quality and water availability is worrisome, yet there is growing awareness about the importance of protecting water resources to secure access to sustainable water for both rural and urban communities. From floods to droughts, the impacts of climate change on water are worse than ever and this is expected to intensify over the years. Climate variability and climate stress impacts water resources, increases the vulnerability of watersheds, and may lead to reductions in aquifer recharge, run-off, and water balance. Fortunately, there is growing awareness at the regional level on the impact of climate change and the need to protect water sources! Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which proposes a holistic approach to water management, is gaining ground in LAC, fostering the introduction of resilience measures in policies, strategies, development plans, investments, technical standards, project cycle, etc. Taking on an integral perspective on the whole water cycle allows reducing risks, eliminating threats, reducing vulnerability and strengthening capacities to recover from potential natural disasters. At the rural community level, there are signs that the cultural value of water is improving, witnessed through increased willingness to pay for access to quality water and the growing commitment to manage and care for community rural water systems.    
  • Within the human rights to WSS framework, the prevalence and consolidation of community management of WSS services, supported by a legal framework and structure under different arrangements (individually or in partnership) for the administration, operation, and maintenance of WSS services. The legal framework of countries such as Chile, Colombia, and Honduras have allowed for greater private sector participation. The recognition of WSS as a human right is also driving changes in rural WSS policies, especially in promoting the visibility of the "invisible", allowing also for a growing demand of rural families for improved levels of services such as: water systems with household connections, keeping hand pumps as an important option when water sources are underground, and Basic Sanitation Units (which include a toilet, urinal, sink and shower). Various countries (Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia) no longer consider latrines as a viable option to be included in investment projects.

The World Bank Water Global Practice’s Rural Water Security and Sanitation Advisory Services and Analytics Initiative is designed to provide a revised picture of the rural LAC WSS context, relying on the following premises:  

  • The rural sector has changed, and rurality in LAC cannot be understood under the same parameters used in the last decade. There is a need to revise our interpretation of what we define as ‘rural’ from a social, cultural, and economic point of view before designing WSS projects for these segments of the population.
  • The challenges still faced by rural areas force us to be innovative and think outside the box. Reaching the most vulnerable rural populations requires a territorial approach and extra efforts towards strengthening multi- and inter-sectoral coordination. It is necessary to strengthen collaboration to propose comprehensive and innovative approaches.
  • To achieve SDG 6, especially 6.1 and 6.2, we must review and learn from the ample experiences in rural areas in LAC. Ample stand-alone advancements have been made in the region which by studying in unison, could provide enhanced learning—not only to adequately depict the rural context of today, but also to identify innovations worth sharing. There is a need to make a leap from an approach based on current parameters (e.g. community management and the right to free WSS) to one that acknowledges the challenges still facing the rural sector.  

Ultimately, these premises highlight the need to recognize that the rural WSS sector in LAC must be viewed under the same quality scheme lens governing the urban WSS sector.

We invite you to share learning on innovative RWSS experiences in LAC which may be of value to the region (or beyond) to help move the SDG6 agenda forward at the rural level.

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