Operation and Maintenance

Operation and Maintenance (O&M) refers to all ongoing activities and processes involved in managing and ensuring the proper functioning, cleanliness and sustainability of sanitation facilities and services. It encompasses a range of tasks, including routine inspections, repairs, cleaning, restocking of consumables, waste management and regular maintenance of equipment and infrastructure. O&M aims to ensure that sanitation facilities such as toilets, transport or treatment technologies operate effectively, meet hygiene and safety standards and provide a satisfactory level of service to users. Every intervention requires O&M, more so if activities run over a prolonged period. The O&M implications of each intervention must be considered during initial planning and design, to ensure the sustainability of a project in the long-term.  

Key Actions

    • Define and share responsibilities clearly, using SOPs. Management staff defines and oversees maintenance processes. Technicians carry out the tasks as planned and defined

    • Consider the costs of O&M during project planning. Resources are the key to ensuring effective and efficient O&M. Personnel need the tools, skills and spare parts. Without sufficient funding, regular preventive maintenance as well as unforeseen repairs are not feasible

    • Define the tasks and timeframe of regular preventive maintenance in the form of schedules as an essential step in O&M planning

  • Apply O&M guiding principles: 
      • Functioning O&M is closely linked to the ownership of a service and a good understanding of its function

      • Every technology that is implemented requires O&M to function

      • Different services need different skills and therefore different responsibilities for O&M

      • Clearly defined roles, accountabilities, appropriate support and training are essential for sustainable O&M

    • Institutional responsibilities as well as effective mechanisms for cost recovery are needed to ensure sustainable O&M
  • Ensure an O&M Plan is available:
      • O&M plans are prepared based on the maintenance strategy that has been formulated. The plan outlines the maintenance activities, their timing and the information needed for the documentation of the tasks

      • A plan also takes into account the current condition of the asset and how important it is to the functioning of the system

      • The plan informs activities such as inspections, parts replacement and preventive maintenance

      • To make SOPs understandable, they should be written in clear and simple language. Photographs and diagrams should be used rather than text wherever possible

      • The draft SOP should be tested with future users to ensure that they are understandable and can be followed as described. The aim is to check if the language is appropriate for target users and to correct any deficiencies before finalising the SOP

  • Organise and plan O&M; this is not a huge task, but does require a certain level of planning, commitment and monitoring. The aspects that need to be organised are:
      • What: the activity which is to be carried out

      • When: the frequency of this activity

      • Who: the human resources required for the task

    • With what: the materials, spare parts, tools and equipment needed 
    • Develop an O&M Strategy (how the O&M activities will be organised) that includes:
        • Institutionalising O&M (at the community, utility and camp management level)

        • Clear descriptions of how the assets are expected to function with proper O&M (O&M plan, see above)

        • Information and documentation requirements, for example, a log of parts replaced, inspections made and recording of any incidents (unexpected events)

        • Prioritisation of assets for routine inspection and maintenance (the more important and more subject to wear and tear, the more frequent O&M


Effective O&M are crucial to prevent system failures, maintain public health and prolong the lifespan of sanitation infrastructure. Countless projects around the world demonstrate how newly built sanitation infrastructure, such as faecal sludge treatment plants and shared latrines, quickly deteriorate because appropriate O&M is neglected. O&M ultimately contributes to the provision of safe and sustainable sanitation services to communities.


O&M refers to all the regular activities needed in any sanitation intervention, except for the construction of new facilities. The overall aim of O&M is to ensure the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of sanitation facilities (CASTRO 2009). It includes the routine or periodic tasks required to keep a process or system functioning according to its performance requirements and to minimise delays, repairs or downtime. Many interventions fail due to the lack of appropriate O&M. Therefore O&M activities are considered throughout the project cycle, to ensure that the project is sustainable in the long-term.

O&M activities (which encompass not only technical issues but also managerial, social, financial and institutional issues) must be directed towards the elimination or reduction of the major constraints which prevent the achievement of sustainability (BRIKKE 2000). O&M is a crucial element of sustainability and a frequent cause of the failure of sanitation service facilities in the past. Many failures are not technical ones. They may result from poor planning, inadequate cost recovery, or the outreach inadequacies of centralised agencies (DFID 1998). If O&M of WASH services is not prioritised by humanitarian actors, infrastructure may deteriorate quickly and the affected population may lose access to facilities that serve their basic needs (EUROPEAN COMMISSION 2014).

The two activities of “operation” and “maintenance” are very different. Operation refers to the direct access to the system by the user, to the activities of any operational staff (e.g. operators of motorised pumps) and to the rules or by-laws which may be devised to govern who may access the system, when, and under what conditions. Maintenance, on the other hand, refers to the technical activities (planned or reactive) which are needed to keep the system working. Maintenance requires skills, tools and spare parts (CARTER 2009). Maintenance can be classified as follows (adapted from CASTRO 2009):

Preventive maintenance: includes work that is planned and carried out regularly to maintain and keep the infrastructure in good condition, such as network inspection, cleaning and greasing of mechanical parts and replacement of items with a limited lifespan. It sometimes includes minor repairs and replacement as dictated by the routine examinations.

Corrective maintenance: replacing or repairing something that was done incorrectly or that needs to be changed; an example is the reallocation of a pipe route or replacement of a faulty pump.

Reactive maintenance: a reaction to a crisis or public complaints; it normally occurs as a result of failures and the malfunctioning or breakdown of equipment.

To ensure the routine maintenance and health of the system, the technician should adhere to a routine check-up schedule and the project manager must ensure that the technician is doing his/her job. If done correctly and regularly, preventive measures can reduce the risk of costly repairs. The key to ensuring effective equipment maintenance is to make sure that responsibilities are clearly defined and maintenance personnel have the tools and skills to do their job effectively. It is also essential to schedule preventive maintenance.

To ensure long-term access and good standards of sanitation services in emergency settings, it is essential to Plan for O&M. The responsibility for O&M activities can be coordinated between local governments, sanitation service providers, WASH committees and representatives from the affected population. Community Mobilisation can be an important factor in improving the provision of services and encouraging participation in O&M. Additionally, Monitoring is vital to flag problems and to direct and prioritise future O&M activities. Budgeting for O&M should form an integral part of project planning. To properly plan for O&M activities and inspections, daily, monthly and long-term work plans need to be developed along with a clear procedure for reporting gaps or problems with the sanitation infrastructure to the service provider (UNHCR 2015).

Operational plans for infrastructure, in particular for faecal sludge treatment plants, need to be defined in Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). SOPs are written instructions that cover all tasks.  Additionally, a set of common roles and responsibilities for O&M administration, coordination and management should be created, agreed upon and then communicated to humanitarian staff, partners, local government and the WASH committees (UNHCR 2015). It is recommended that experts with experience in long-term O&M are invited to provide recommendations on the sanitation facility design, liaise with the affected population and identify O&M concerns (UNHCR 2015). Beneficiaries such as refugees, IDPs and other stakeholders should participate in the design process. They will be more likely to feel a sense of ownership over the facilities if they were involved in the conception and design phase. An Exit Strategy must always be planned and implemented to allow the community to take over and operate and maintain facilities after humanitarian actors reduce or end their assistance (EUROPEAN COMMISSION 2014).

Author(s) (1)
Tobias Ulbrich
Bremen Overseas Research and Development Association (BORDA)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (3)
Shirish Singh
IHE Delft Institute for Water Education
Marij Zwart
Netherlands Red Cross (NLRC)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)

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