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February 22, 2016

A transition scenario for leapfrogging to a sustainable urban water future in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Dr. Niki Frantzeskaki, SUSTAIN Project team member and DRIFT Researcher, publishes a new research article on "a transition scenario for leapfrogging to a sustainable urban water future in Port Vila, Vanuatu". Here's an excerpt from the research article published this month.

"Port Vila is one developing urban centre that would benefit from an environmental leapfrog in its urban water management. It is a burgeoning urban centre of approximately 40,000, with an annual growth of 4%. Vanuatu, like many Pacific island states, faces pressures relating to limited resources and financial constraints, inability to benefit from economies of scale, limited opportunities for industry and economic growth, and environmental vulnerabilities (Moglia et al., 2009): The current urban water system in Port Vila's is a legacy of colonial rule. A piped water supply system serves the official Port Vila urban area, with some peri-urban regions dependant on informal water supply alternatives. The central business district and principle roads are serviced with a stormwater system comprising both pits and pipes and open concreted drains, with grassed ditches transporting stormwater beyond these areas, however, these are regularly blocked causing urban inundation and public nuisance. With the exception of a few small-scale wastewater treatment plants in hotels and resorts, household septic tanks (generally poorly maintained and rarely emptied) are the predominant forms of wastewater management in Port Vila, with extensive use of pit latrines in informal and peri-urban communities, leading to groundwater and soil contamination. Currently, on the whole, Port Vila would be considered to be a ‘Water Supply City’ with some areas reflecting both ‘Sewered City’ and ‘Drained City’ characteristics."

Current infrastructure predates state independence and reflects a history of poor urban planning, with Port Vila outgrowing its planned maximum population in the 1980's due to rapid migration into the capital (Storey, 1998). Since the 1980's drainage and wastewater management have remained inadequate for the population and tourism that Port Vila supports. This has resulted in public health concerns with high levels of diarrheal disease (ISF-UTS, 2011), and significant environmental degradation. Environmental degradation is potentially threatening the future growth of the tourism sector (extensive coral death throughout Port Vila harbour is likely caused by excess sediment and nutrients due to stormwater and wastewater contamination (Mosley and Aalbesberg, 2003)). Vanuatu's economy is heavily dependent on tourism (Scheyvens and Russell, 2013) and as thus, urban water and wastewater management has serious economic ramifications. The past two decades have seen a myriad of recommendations for institutional restructuring, proposals to replicate foreign institutional practises, policy and strategy papers for urban water sector development, and multiple infrastructure proposals following conventional development pathways (Cleary, 2011 and ADB, 1994, 1998, 2010). Infrastructural proposals failed to gain adequate political ownership to commit to the required capital expenditure [e.g. ADB sanitation masterplan (ADB, 1998)] and institutional recommendations did not receive the political commitment to facilitate implementation [e.g. national water strategy (Fitchett, 2008)]. Concurrent to these ongoing (policy) failures, ad hoc yet rapid urban development has continued within Port Vila. Densification and urban expansion are accelerating urban water challenges. Effective measures that will decrease detrimental impacts of urban development while increasing resilience are required. 

The past two decades demonstrate that the current foreign-driven model for promoting conventional infrastructure development and institutional reform has failed in gaining the momentum needed to generate long term lasting change towards more sustainable solutions and infrastructures. Rather, new infrastructure governance approaches are required to progress the urban water sector from a poorly performing and vulnerable service towards a system supporting resilience and orienting in sustainability. It is suggested that environmental leapfrogging transitions present an optimal development trajectory, rather than the traditional development trajectories previously recommended, and that innovative governance models are required. There is very limited academic, or practise-based literature, looking at the way leapfrogging can be steered and facilitated. To address this important knowledge gap, this paper reports on a process of participatory engagement with policy frontrunners of Port Vila in unlocking their innovative ideas and tacit knowledge, to mobilise them into taking collective transformative action for leapfrogging to SUWM in Port Vila. In doing so, this paper seeks to answer the critical question of whether transition management can enable environmental leapfrogging to advance sustainable urban water management in developing country contexts." 

Read more about the research article here.