In order to ensure the sustainability of our infrastructure, it is necessary to have a community ownership and management approach, making the end-users directly involved or responsible.
Optimise operational and maintenance practices for sustainability of infrastructure
By Frank Kweronda
It has become increasingly apparent that a paradoxical situation is emerging with respect to sustainability of our infrastructure. On the one hand a huge demand for 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 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 perspective of good governance.
Operation and maintenance refers to all the activities needed to run any infrastructure in place, except for the construction of new facilities. The overall aim of operation and maintenance is to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of facilities. The two activities of “operation” and “maintenance” are different in nature.
Operation refers to the direct access to the system by the user (e.g. operating a generator), 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, is to do with the technical activities (preventive, reactive and corrective), which are needed to keep the system working.
Maintenance requires skills, tools and spare parts. In many cases, in order to ensure the sustainability of our infrastructure, it is necessary to have a community ownership and management approach, making the end-users directly involved or responsible in one way or another for the operation and maintenance of the installed facilities.
Successful operation and maintenance require following an “owner’s manual” prepared by the contractor and engineer at the onset of the planning process. This should spell out a schedule and procedures for maintenance and should also include methods to carry out tasks such as bookkeeping, paying employees, collecting bills (utility management), inspection, refurbishments, replacement of parts, etc., giving an integral framework for operation and maintenance.
Infrastructure is essential for sustained economic growth, competitiveness and social progress. A country’s infrastructure endowment plays a major strategic role in its economic growth and global competitiveness. A basic government responsibility is to secure maximum optimisation from the O&M of existing infrastructure assets. The Government can adopt various strategies to optimise the socio-economic returns generated from these assets.
Generally, many infrastructure projects experience their most serious problems with operation and maintenance and with cost recovery aspects. Hundreds of projects around the world demonstrate how the newly built infrastructure deteriorates after the project’s termination. Therefore, it is imperative to plan for operation and maintenance, with a planned withdrawal of external support as local ownership builds. Operation and maintenance is a crucial element of sustainability and a frequent cause of failure of 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. Operation and maintenance has been neglected in the past or been discussed and introduced only after a project was completed. This neglect or delay in applying proper operation and maintenance has adversely affected the credibility of the investments made, the functioning of the services, the well-being of rural and urban populations, and the development of further projects.
High-quality infrastructure facilities may be costly to build and maintain, but they provide many economic benefits, as they facilitate trade and production efficiencies for other industries. For example, consider how an unreliable power supply would add to the overall cost of doing business, as factories must either pause production during blackouts or pay for expensive back-up generators.
The same may apply to water shortage, poor roads etc. While building new infrastructure assets ranks high on the agenda, existing infrastructure assets are often neglected thus unnecessary operational costs and inadequate maintenance. Against the backdrop of increasing user demand, constrained financing and an ageing asset base, it is imperative for planners and implementers to make the most of their existing infrastructure assets – specifically, to increase the assets’ productivity and longevity.
Most policy makers and implementers emphasise constructing new assets, but this strategy is not the best solution; after all, public-budget constraints exist, as do multiple difficulties in getting projects from idea to implementation in a reasonable timeframe.
A complementary and potentially more cost-effective approach is to improve the utilisation, efficiency and longevity of the existing infrastructure by optimal O&M. There is always a tendency to neglect the existing assets and current O&M practices are often seriously deficient.
In operations, they fail to maximise asset utilisation and to meet adequate user quality standards, while incurring needlessly high costs as well as environmental and social externalities. Maintenance is all too often neglected, since political bias is towards funding new assets.
Similarly, resilience to natural disasters tends to be ignored, although such hazards are becoming more common and more destructive because of climate change. As a result of the maintenance backlog and the lack of resilience measures, existing assets deteriorate much faster than necessary, shortening their useful design life.
Many projects promote community participation in the planning, implementation and management of these services. Increased participation in O&M is usually assumed. It has become increasingly apparent that a contradictory situation is emerging with respect to infrastructure services in our less developed countries.
On the one hand, a huge demand for infrastructure has resulted from rapid urbanisation; on the other, existing infrastructure is falling into disrepair before completing its design life. Planned Operation and maintenance (O&M) has been identified 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. No matter how sustainable a structure may have been in its design and construction, it can only remain so if it is operated responsibly and maintained properly.
A country’s competitive economic advantage clearly depends on a properly articulated infrastructure vision and long-term planning. Planners and leaders must inspect their project portfolios critically and decide which ones to accelerate first based on their strategic importance, independently of the restricted duration of a political cycle. However, vision and planning are not sufficient and it is fundamental that we all learn how to assess and select an appropriate infrastructure delivery model at the early stages of the project preparation process and are fully aware of the implementation consequences in terms of whole life-cycle cost. In addition, there is need to develop a holistic and long-term strategy for operating and maintaining the physical assets that may represent a considerable financial burden for future taxpayers.
In reality, the Government may struggle to achieve high O&M performance due to insufficient funding, especially through annual grants, weak capabilities and inadequate O&M governance.
The chances of successfully optimising O&M are enhanced by three factors; existing role models of good practice, technological innovation and relatively modest implementation costs. Operation and maintenance (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.
Therefore, the importance of O&M should gain considerable visibility and policy-makers and project designers should be more conscious of the direct links between improved O&M practices and the sustainability of infrastructure. There should also be recognition of the need to approach these projects in a comprehensive way, emphasising not only the design and construction but also post-construction activities.
A proper solution will require a step change in infrastructure asset management. In fact, such a transformation is feasible. Many examples of O&M best practices exist from the various infrastructure sectors eg. roads, water supply and sanitation, electricity) that just need to be adopted more widely. Most important of all, O&M solutions are affordable. They are highly cost-effective in an otherwise capital-intensive industry. Even small O&M improvements can make a remarkable impact, given the large size of the global asset base, where each percent of improvement translates into billions of money saved. And in addition to generating financial savings, O&M improvements can also bring considerable social and environmental benefits, in line with governments’ service mission.
Finally, it is crucial to remember that proper O&M is part and parcel of high-quality service alignment for users and this user-based focus is what drives their willingness to pay for services and thus reinforces funding sustainability. As such, effective O&M and asset management approaches for existing infrastructure provide a blueprint for sustainable investment of the future.
The writer is a civil engineer