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CLOSE THIS BOOKWater Manual for Refugee Situations (UNHCR, 1992, 160 p.)
11. Operation and maintenance of water supply systems
VIEW THE DOCUMENT(introduction...)
VIEW THE DOCUMENTOperation and maintenance plan
VIEW THE DOCUMENTWater inventory data
VIEW THE DOCUMENTPreventive maintenance
Refugee participation
VIEW THE DOCUMENT(introduction...)
VIEW THE DOCUMENT"Village level operation and maintenance"
VIEW THE DOCUMENTStandard designs and equipment
VIEW THE DOCUMENTLogistics support
VIEW THE DOCUMENTMaintenance of sources and catchments
VIEW THE DOCUMENTMaintenance of water treatment facilities
VIEW THE DOCUMENTMaintenance of reservoirs
VIEW THE DOCUMENTMaintenance of standposts and other watering points
VIEW THE DOCUMENTMaintenance of pumping facilities

Water Manual for Refugee Situations (UNHCR, 1992, 160 p.)

11. Operation and maintenance of water supply systems

· The effectiveness of any water supply system depends, in the long run, on the correct operation of each of its components and on the efficiency of the arrangements to service, repair or replace used or damaged ones.

· Although refugee communities cannot assume responsibility for operation and maintenance activities in an emergency camp by themselves, efforts should be made to ensure their maximum involvement in these activities as early as possible, in order to instill a sense of ownership in the community and to facilitate their involvement in longer term care and maintenance assistance activities.

· Every camp should have a plan to cover the operation and preventive maintenance needs of all its infrastructure. The engineers in charge of camp design and construction should provide clear and practical guidelines for its elaboration.


1. Once a water supply system is completed it should be operated and maintained to ensure the continuous and reliable supply of safe drinking water to its beneficiaries. Experience shows that refugee water supply systems are more difficult to keep running than to construct. The negative effects of inoperative systems on refugee health, the adverse impact on hygiene practices and sanitary conditions within the camp and the costs of regularly upgrading or repairing wrongly operated or badly maintained systems are reasons enough to make efforts to develop adequate operation and maintenance schemes already during the design and construction stages of project implementation (See 3.8; 5.2; 6.40; 6.56).

2. Whilst the primary responsibility for the continuous functioning of small water supply systems in rural areas and small towns lies with the community, emergency refugee water supply systems, due to their nature, should be kept operational throughout the emergency relief operations by those responsible for camp management (See 5.2), who may or may not be assisted by specialized government agencies (water authorities, municipalities, etc.) or other organizations working on behalf of UNHCR (voluntary or non-governmental agencies, service contractors, etc.) (See 12.7-iii). Once the emergency needs have been met, and if camp activities are to continue for an undefined period of time, refugee participation in simple operation and maintenance tasks should be gradually introduced, following an education and training campaign which should have started soon after the onset of the emergency (See 11.6; 12.20). At the same time, the possibility of handing over these responsibilities to specialized government agencies with a presence and similar responsibilities in the region where the camp is located will be explored and, if appropriate, pursued, always bearing in mind the intrinsic differences between a refugee camp and normal communities; these differences are created by the legal framework within which refugee assistance is carried out during emergency situations and a lack of sound economic bases for refugees to pursue any type of self-sufficiency at the camps (See 5.2).

3. When the construction of the system is finalized, a water supply operation and maintenance committee should start its work. This committee, as already pointed out, should be under the administrative and financial responsibility of camp managers and should be adequately supported by technical staff from the government or specialized agencies acting as UNHCR's implementing partners in protection or assistance efforts for camp beneficiaries. The committee should appoint a caretaker, preferably a person with technical background and experience in water supply operations, to coordinate and ensure the most effective operation and timely maintenance of the system at any time. The engineer concerned with the design or construction of the system should always be responsible for instruction and training the caretaker before handing over the project to the camp authorities. The camp authorities will make sure that all administrative and financial matters related to these activities are appropriately covered and well understood by the committee and the caretaker in advance.

4. The main task of the water supply operation and maintenance committee should be to ensure that the caretaker (and his staff) operate the system in accordance with a preventive maintenance concept (See 11.9) and by using appropriate and cost-effective "curative" procedures whenever necessary. Preventive actions are those that may be carried out while the system and its components still function, in order to reduce breakdowns and ensure a good continuity and effectiveness of the service. Curative procedures are those actions necessary to upgrade or repair a system or its components to put them in working order again. While preventive actions are cost-saving in the long run, they require an effective use of available resources as well as good planning, organization and management skills from camp authorities and the committee.

5. The arrangements for the operation and maintenance of emergency refugee water supply systems should always be adapted to the needs of the refugees, to camp requirements, to the site's resources and environmental conditions and to the institutional framework of UNHCR's assistance programme (See 2.8; 12.20). The involvement of specialized government or non-government agencies in the operation and maintenance of camp infrastructure should be sought at the onset of the emergency relief efforts. Funds will have to be made available, on a periodical basis, to the responsible entity to pay for the staff and materials needed for the planned inspections and necessary repairs to system components; estimating these funds will require knowledge of the system and its requirements, on the number of personnel required to efficiently carry out all related functions, the level of competence and involvement of the refugee community in these tasks, and the salary scales to be adopted.

Training needs

6. The agency responsible for the operation and maintenance of these water supply systems should develop a training programme on a continuous basis for staff and selected refugees who could eventually get involved in these activities, especially when the emergency phase is over, and when "care and maintenance" activities take their shape to cater for refugee needs until a durable solution is found for their plight (See 2.9; 3.8; 7.11; 12.20). This programme should include vocational (mechanics, plumbing, etc.), simple record keeping and other administrative training, depending on the technical approach and complexity of the system and on other institutional requirements of the agency and the "care and maintenance" programme being implemented. Technical staff at higher levels should also benefit from the training programme, which should include tailor-made training, covering administrative, accounting, finance and engineering aspects (See 11.20). These programme should also be carried out in such a way as to support and complement other on-going efforts in the fields of preventive health and hygiene education (See 8.24). In this context, a coordinated plan, including estimates of manpower, training staff, equipment, materials and operating costs should be pursued as a way to ensure the necessary funding and assistance from the international community and UNHCR's implementing partners (See 5.1).

Operation and maintenance plan

7. Activities related to the operation of emergency water supply systems depend on the type of system in use. The technical characteristics of the systems have been decided after considering all available resources and constraints. Their operation and maintenance requirements, as well as the approach to meet them, should also have been considered by the design engineer (See 2.10). It is his responsibility, therefore, to provide a clear and practical plan to operate and maintain all system components to camp authorities and relevant service personnel. This plan should be detailed and specific (it should refer to every single system component requiring operation or maintenance actions); it should also be realistic and have a time element in the form of work schedules, giving emphasis to preventive maintenance activities (See 3.16; 4.3; 6.40-45; 6.53; 6.56; 7.5; 7.11; 7.15; 8.19; 8.24; 8.26; 9.4-6; 10.6; 10.9; 11.9). This plan should already include a complete set of technical information required by the operation and maintenance staff to understand the system and its components as well as to monitor their performance (See 2.6; 10.23); the ways and means of obtaining, storing, retrieving and analyzing additional technical data generated by operation or maintenance activities should also be included in the plan.

Water inventory data

8. It is the responsibility of camp management (and more precisely of their engineering support), (See 11.2) to ensure that technical information is obtained and used to produce and periodically update a water history file for each system; experience has shown that this goal may only be attained if the operation and maintenance plans include a routine to ensure that all technical files are kept up-to-date (See 6.40). This water inventory will indicate, on an on-going basis, the operational possibilities, costs and constraints of the systems as well as the type of maintenance required and its possible timing and costs. For this purpose, check-lists may be useful, which should include all physical actions required as well as a complete breakdown of the type and quality of information needed to manage the system's operation and maintenance (See 2.6). The use of water by the beneficiary community should also be monitored and appropriate records maintained on this subject; the impact of a water supply system in an emergency refugee camp is related to social and cultural factors as much as to the technical characteristics of the systems and their components (See 2.8; 3.9; 5.2).

Preventive maintenance

9. A preventive maintenance concept requires that enough technical attention be given to the functioning and performance of each single component of the refugee water supply system to allow the identification of future system faults (loss of efficiency, signs of wear, bacteriological contamination of the supplied water, leaks, etc.) before its breakdown occurs (See 11.4). It also requires a plan for visiting and inspecting every system component on a periodical basis. The results of these visits are to be recorded in the water history files for monitoring and future reference purposes (See 11.8) as well as all preventive maintenance actions then carried out (servicing engines and other mechanical devices, replacing worn parts, repairing leaks, etc.). The frequency of the visits and the type of actions to be taken at each site will be decided according to the system's technology and characteristics. Appropriate check-lists are also required to assist camp managers and caretakers in their tasks.

10. Camp managers, assisted by the water maintenance committee (See 11.3) will periodically read and analyze field reports to detect troubles before they occur, to take the actions required to solve them (e.g. usage leading to breakdowns, lowering of the water table, low levels of residual chlorine in the supplied water, unsanitary conditions at water points, etc.) and to obtain enough information for budgetary and other management requirements. Information and complaints from beneficiaries should be appropriately recorded and considered by the committee as part of their normal duties. For this purpose, a simple and practical system to receive these complaints or reports from the beneficiaries (refugees, service centres, administration, etc.) should be established, and each of these complaints should trigger the appropriate remedial actions by the committee, the caretaker and his staff.

Refugee participation

11. Refugee communities do not live in "normal conditions" and therefore may not collaborate with camp authorities in maintaining the camp's infrastructure and services as neighbouring host communities would do (See 5.2). The "temporary" nature of emergency refugee camps as well as the socio-economic and political situation of these refugees do not allow for a close and effective involvement of refugees in this type of activities (See 2.8). Efforts should, nevertheless, be made to identify and motivate members of the refugee community with the right technical expertise (or who are willing to be trained) to collaborate with camp authorities during the design and construction of the system and later in operation and maintenance activities (See 2.9; 3.8; 4.2; 5.1-iv; 6.33; 6.36-iii; 7.11; 11.22). This will facilitate their closer involvement in camp activities should the emergency camp evolve into a longer term "care and maintenance" camp.

12. When designing an approach for refugee participation in an operation and maintenance scheme for camp infrastructure which is likely to be useful, beyond the emergency, in longer term "care and maintenance", it should be borne in mind that the approach required should be adapted to the cultural and social background of the beneficiaries as much as to the technical characteristics of the system itself. The role of women and children as beneficiaries and their possible contribution to operation and maintenance efforts should always be considered; they have been, and are, successfully playing an important role in these type of camp activities in many camps throughout the world (See 3.8). The size of the refugee camp should be considered very carefully when defining modalities and degrees of refugee participation in water supply operation and maintenance activities, as experience shows that whilst it is possible to adapt operation and maintenance schemes which have proven successful in rural non-refugee villages (particularly in developing countries) to small refugee camps (say, with populations of less than 3000-5000 beneficiaries), it is practically impossible to apply these approaches to larger refugee camps, whose water supply systems should be managed, operated and maintained in accordance with schemes more similar to those used in larger towns, which require a stronger central system and less participation from the beneficiaries.

"Village level operation and maintenance"

13. An operation and maintenance approach that has proven useful and relatively successful in ensuring continuous and efficient water supply services in refugee camps located in rural environments of some developing countries is the so-called "Village Level Operation and Maintenance" concept (VLOM). Although its original conception was to address the operation and maintenance problems of handpump-based water supply systems, its main principles may be applicable to other types of systems such as those serving small refugee camps (populations ranging between 3000 and 5000 refugees or less). As the bases for this approach should be established during the early stages of camp planning and construction (i.e. during the emergency phase) its applicability to each particular camp should be analyzed by camp authorities and technical staff at the start (See 2.9; 5.1; 12.3).

14. The VLOM approach was made possible by the agreement of handpump manufacturers to develop pumps allowing maintenance efforts to be carried out by village caretakers with minimal skills and working tools, giving preference to the use of spare parts that could be manufactured at local level, and with special emphasis on the cost-effectiveness of these pumping systems and their operation and maintenance requirements. The system also contemplates a great deal of users' involvement in choosing when to service the pumps, the appointment of the caretakers and in meeting (at least partly) the financial requirements of the scheme (this last point is normally not applicable in refugee camps). The advantages (technical, financial and even social) of this concept are reasons enough to analyze its applicability to any refugee situation and to make efforts to adopt it in all camps showing the possibility of success. In this context, advise and support from donor agencies, local authorities, implementing partners and pump manufacturers should be sought.

Standard designs and equipment

15. Very often, several refugee camps may be located in one district, province or region within a "refugee-affected area" and the provision of services to them will very likely be the responsibility of the same government authorities and implementing partner agencies, with the support of the same UNHCR's field or branch office. The delivery of these services, their efficiency and cost-effectiveness and the general impact on refugee welfare will greatly increase if standard designs and plant equipment are used in the construction of camp infrastructure, including the water system. Efforts and a great deal of planning are required at the early stages of camp development to achieve this goal. Camp authorities, with the technical support of the design engineer and other relevant technicians (See 11.2), will explore the uses and practices of local authorities and government agencies to define the best technological approach to use in the design of the system and its components (See 2.7; 9.16). They will also look at the local and, if necessary, the international market to ascertain the immediate and future availability, and prices, of the equipment considered as most suitable to the project and the local environment. A decision to use the same equipment on a continuous base should then be made, bearing in mind the need to be as flexible as possible to adapt future needs to changing social, technological and financial circumstances. In this context, the use of emergency water supply prefabricated packages should be carefully planned in such a way that, they could either continue to provide a cost-effective service or be easily replaced for more permanent structures and equipment if the need to continue longer term assistance for the refugees arises (See 4.1; 4.7; 7.11; 8.19; 9.5; 12.20).

Logistics support

16. To keep water flowing through a water system requires the importation to the camp of a large number of items. This task should also be "carefully planned in the early stages of camp development. The needs are determined by the size and technological approach used in the system as much as by the camp's geographical situation and by the local social and economic circumstances. Arrangements should, therefore, be made to assess the procurement, transport and warehouse needs of each camp to ensure a timely and effective supply of fuel, spare parts, disinfectants and other materials required for the operation and maintenance of the water supply systems (See 8.21; 10.5).

17. In most cases procurement of assistance items for refugee camps is made outside the camp, by people not necessarily having a thorough knowledge of the technical details required for the obtention of the right type of equipment or materials for a given water supply system. Although the standardization of designs and equipment may prove useful to ensure a more effective procurement effort, a sound and complete description, with special emphasis on the provision of standard, easy to understand technical specifications, is the only way to ensure the timely availability of the operation and maintenance crews' requirements. It is most important to obtain an exhaustive record of the technical characteristics of each water system component from the design engineer; this record will be kept by the caretaker and adjusted periodically to reflect recent changes. On those occasions when there may be difficulties in obtaining the correct data, an experienced engineer should be consulted (See 11.2)

18. It is the joint responsibility of UNHCR, government counterparts, their implementing partners and camp managers to hold a large enough stock of fuel, spare parts and any other material necessary for the due functioning of the water supply system and its components and to provide workshop facilities for regular operation and maintenance activities. Enough attention should also be given to the conservation of perishable items, such as PVC pipes or disinfection chemicals, to slow down their decay (See 8.21; 10.5). To ensure an effective supply of these basic items, arrangements should be made for the utilization of the procurement, warehouse/storage, and control facilities (and their staff) covering charge of the provision and distribution of other assistance items to the refugees (construction materials, medical supplies, food items, etc.). When more than one refugee camp is under the responsibility of the same agencies, efforts should be made to centralize the system so as to ensure an even supply of the requirements to all camps (See 11.15). At camp level, warehouse facilities should be adapted to the technical characteristics of the water supply system and its components; details of these facilities should be given by the design engineer as part of the information to be submitted by him upon completion of his work (See 6.26-ii; 8.21; 9.17-vi).

Maintenance of sources and catchments

19. The need to protect all water sources from pollution has been previously discussed (See 2.2; 3.11; 4.3; 6.9; 6.19; 6.29). Appropriate actions should be planned, included in the operation and maintenance plan (See 11.7) and undertaken by the caretaker and his staff to periodically check that this protection is effective (prevention of farming in the catchment areas, cutting grass and overgrowth in the vicinities of structures, regular inspections at collection chambers of spring intakes, cleaning and greasing of locks, repairs to cracked slabs or leaks, etc.). As periodical coliform bacteria counts provide the best indicators on the evolution of bacteriological water quality, they should be performed on a regular basis (See 3.16); appropriate actions should be immediately taken to locate and eliminate any source of pollution thus detected. Catchment structures such as surface water intakes, dug wells, boreholes, hafirs, etc., require specific actions for the repair of erosion damages, for the cleaning of siltation or incrustation deposits or for periodical disinfection (See 6.11; 6.21; 6.40-45; 6.53; 6.56); these actions should be included in the preventive maintenance plan (See 11.7).

Maintenance of water treatment facilities

20. Water treatment plants may perform many processes in accordance with the raw water quality and the design of the system; technological approaches to treatment are also many and very varied (See 8.8). It is most important to make sure that these facilities are well understood by the caretaker and his crew to ensure the continuous potability of the supplied water. Cutting grass and overgrowth around the structures; greasing doors and locks, provision of preventive maintenance to valves (greasing, replacement of gaskets, etc.), periodical cleaning and disinfection of tanks, preventive maintenance, service and repairs to mechanical equipment (pumps, chlorine dosers, agitators, etc.) and water quality control (See 3.16; 8.24) are important activities related to the operation and maintenance of most treatment facilities. Slow sand filters, for instance (See 8.19), require water to be drained off first before 1 to 2 cm. of the sand surface is carefully scraped off, a process that could be repeated periodically until the sand filter layer approaches its minimum effective thickness (not less than 50 cm.); the intervals for cleaning depend on the quality of the raw water and the filter's throughput (generally between 3 to 8 weeks). Previously removed sand is carefully washed to eliminate all its contamination and dirt, additional "new" sand is added to complete the initial volumes and the filter is backfilled for another cycle once this minimum sand level has been reached.

Maintenance of reservoirs

21. Maintenance of reservoirs is often overlooked or neglected; tanks need, however, periodical cleaning and repairs to keep their effectiveness and to avoid any possibility for them to become sources of pollution to the supplied water. Checks for damages in their structures and covers, detection of leaks, and related repairs may be carried out just after cleaning the tanks. Disinfection of the tanks should always be carried out after these operations and before they are put back into service. The surroundings of all tanks and reservoirs should be kept clear of grass and overgrowth.

Maintenance of standposts and other watering points

22. Actions to take care of public distribution standposts and other watering points (e.g. cattle trough facilities) may, to a large extent be carried out by the refugee beneficiaries themselves. The importance of this collaboration should be stressed in hygiene education programmes (See 2.9; 11.2). Among the tasks that should be carried out by refugees are all those necessary to maintain the standposts clean and the drainage facilities (for waste water) operational (See 6.29; 10.9). All leaky taps should be replaced or repaired as soon as possible; the use of automatic closing, water saving taps may prove important in controlling water wastage and leaks (See 10.6). Valve chambers should also be inspected and cleaned on a periodical basis; repairs to them should be made without delay as soon as the faults are discovered

Maintenance of pumping facilities

23. Little can be said on this subject apart from insisting that the manufacturer's instructions on operation and maintenance of mechanical equipment should be closely and strictly followed. The buildings should also be checked with some periodicity; valves should be maintained and leakages repaired (See 7.5; 7.8).