Exit Strategy, Transition and Ensuring Sustainability

During an emergency, WASH agencies often assume responsibility for the construction of sanitation infrastructure and services. Over time, it may become possible to handover the ownership and responsibility for service provision to local stakeholders. An exit strategy is a planned approach to why, what, when and how implementing organisations will end their sanitation-related humanitarian engagement. It includes the process of transitioning, handing over, decommissioning infrastructure and exiting or disengaging from activities, projects, programme areas or countries. The aim is to maximise the technical, financial, institutional, socio-cultural and environmental sustainability of sanitation services. 

Key Actions

  • Conduct Actor Mapping at the start of the project to identify  the stakeholders, how they could be involved and determine the feasibility and sustainability of an exit strategy.
  • Actively involve communities and local stakeholders in Planning and Technology Selection to ensure that the planned sanitation service chain is appropriate to the local context and capacities and to increase the sense of ownership. Engage the communities in the development of the exit strategy and jointly assess and plan for the risks associated with the transition. Important factors to consider are the operational costs, complexity and compatibility with the existing infrastructure, such as sewers, truck-based collection services or wastewater and faecal sludge treatment plants.
  • Consider a phased approach, progressively developing the implemented infrastructure and services from very basic solutions to more advanced technologies and services along the entire sanitation chain. It is important to note that the technologies chosen need to be locally appropriate and meet local capacity for long-term operation and maintenance.
  • Invest in technical and management capacity development during the transition phase. This includes Capacity Development of established organisations or groups and the joint development of future Management and Operational Plans as well as Accountability measures.
  • Revise and adapt the exit strategy regularly; plan for an evaluation a few months after the handover.
  • Aim to complete the transition from shared to household latrines before handover. Handing over the responsibility for household latrine management to families is more culturally acceptable, easier and, therefore, more successful.


At the end of an intervention, toilets and all the infrastructure of the sanitation service chain should be handed over to community-based, private, or public organisations to ensure long-term Operation and Maintenance. An exit strategy helps ensure that the benefits gained during the response will not be lost and that capacity has been created for others to continue the work. Ideally, an exit strategy is in place from the beginning of a response and involves communities and local stakeholders in Planning and Technology Selection to make sure that the planned sanitation service chain is appropriate to the local context and capacities and to increase the sense of ownership. The aim is to increase the technical, financial, institutional, socio-cultural and environmental sustainability of the sanitation services.


An exit strategy aims to maximise the technical, financial, institutional, socio-cultural and environmental sustainability of sanitation services. To understand the local context and ensure ownership it is essential to develop an exit strategy in collaboration with the people of concern, government, partners and other stakeholders right at the beginning of the WASH intervention. Often, during the acute phase, response agencies lack the capacity to plan an exit strategy, but potential exit and transition strategies should be considered from the outset or, at the latest, during the transition phase to the handover when the exit strategy needs to be in place. The exit strategy should be detailed, containing all the activities, agreed roles and responsibilities of the communities and all other local stakeholders; it should include realistic timeframes and completion dates. Exit strategies often exist on paper but either do not happen (humanitarian agencies do not leave) or fail (because no one has been identified to hand over to, or insufficient time has been allowed in the transition phase for relevant actors to engage).

A transition phase must be planned during which it is important to ensure:

Technical sustainability: The identification of appropriate technologies will influence the capability of local actors to take over Operation and Maintenance later. Appropriate technologies fit the local physical conditions and habits and can be built with available and affordable local construction materials. Interventions need to balance technically feasible solutions with what the affected population, local government entities or service providers desire and can manage after the project ends for sanitation services to remain operational. A phased approach can also be used, where technologies are adapted during the project to make them more suitable for handover. For example, poor organisation or lack of commitment to managing shared latrines can lead to unsatisfactory maintenance, conflict between users and disuse of the facility (which can become a health hazard if not cleaned regularly). Transitioning to household latrines before the handover can increase ownership and sustainability.

Financial sustainability: This means that the operation and maintenance costs of service delivery can be met locally. It requires service delivery models based on cost calculations and different options for cost recovery. A phased approach can be implemented, where service delivery models are adjusted over time to reduce the operational cost.

Institutional sustainability: Requires Capacity Development to strengthen the capacity of the community or other entity that will take over responsibility and be able to run the sanitation services independently. Capacity development should include technical training (e.g. operation and maintenance, minor repairs, etc.), tools and consumable usage and replacement, procurement procedures, bill of quantities, budget management, etc.) as well as organisational development.

Socio-cultural sustainability: Requires adequate Software and Hygiene Promotion measures to secure acceptance and use by all stakeholders and to encourage the population to increase their engagement and, potentially, pay a user fee for the service received.

Environmental sustainability: Requires interventions to ‘do no harm’ to the environment in the long term. It should be assessed during the transition phase. Typical risks include groundwater and nearby surface water pollution from onsite sanitation that is incorrectly emptied or maintained, or from untreated sludge disposal. International and national Standards can help to assess the respective risks.

Constant Implementation Monitoring: during the implementation and transition phases enable the organisation to evaluate if the designed exit strategy and timeframe remain valid or need adapting. Following a review of the exit criteria with all stakeholders, the handover process can gradually take place. An evaluation involving all stakeholders is recommended a few months after the handover.

In acute scenarios involving temporary, generally onsite, solutions it may be necessary to dismantle and decommission the sanitation facilities. The implementing organisation responsible for construction is usually also responsible for decommissioning, if required.

Further information on how to plan for the transition from emergency response to development can be found here.

Author(s) (3)
Sara Ubbiali
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)
Christoph Lüthi
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)
Dorothee Spuhler
Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (2)
Marij Zwart
Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC)
Claire Papin-Stammose
Solidarité International (SI)

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