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Sustainable operation and maintenance of urban infrastructure : myth or reality?

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journal contribution
posted on 03.11.2008, 17:10 authored by M. Sohail (Khan), Sue Cavill, Andrew Cotton
It has become increasingly apparent that a paradoxical situation is emerging with respect to urban services in less developed countries. On the one hand a huge demand for urban infrastructure has resulted from rapid urbanisation; on the other, existing infrastructure is falling into disrepair before completing its design life. Operation and maintenance (O&M) has been identified by commentators as the key to enhancing the sustainability of existing infrastructure and assets. However, there is a general lack of understanding by stakeholders about the role of operation, maintenance and sustainability in the context of good governance. The aim of this paper is to explore the constraints to operation, maintenance and sustainability of urban services. The findings are based on case studies from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In each of the case locations, projects were completed more than three years ago. Data collection tools included document review, interviews and participant observations. Forums and workshops were also held. In order to distinguish between the different constraints acting upon urban services, the term ‘sustainability’ has been separated according to its technical, financial and institutional aspects. This paper demonstrates how findings from community involvement in service delivery in developing countries can be of benefit to engineers or NGOs working with communities to improve the operation and maintenance of urban services in developed countries. Traditional centralised systems for O&M, which are the responsibility of municipalities and utilities, are not delivering. Recently there has been a search for alternatives such as community-based approaches. Internationally it seems services users are being encouraged to ensure the infrastructure in their neighborhood is kept in good condition. It is hoped that getting service users involved will lead to increased efficiency, benchmarking, raise awareness/ debate, contributed to national growth, reduced waste, improved resource allocation and improved competitiveness. However, evidence of the success of such schemes is rather patchy. It has been recognised that neither community nor government alone can ensure the sustainability of infrastructure; a partnership approach is needed. The keys to improving operation and maintenance—and hence sustainability—are the availability of information and the attribution of clear roles and responsibilities. Operation and maintenance can be seen to be the most important determinant of citizens’ satisfaction with urban services; this in turn leads to better governance.



  • Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering

Research Unit

  • Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC)


SOHAIL, K., CAVILL, S. and COTTON, A.P., 2005. Sustainable operation and maintenance of urban infrastructure : myth or reality. Journal of Urban Planning and Development, 131(1), pp. 39-49 [DOI:10.1061/(ASCE)0733-9488(2005)131:1(39)]



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This article was published in the Journal of Urban Planning and Development [© ASCE] and the definitive version is available at:





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