Planning for climate-resilient water, sanitation, and hygiene in urban settlements in Melanesia


Full research title: Inclusive urban water, sanitation and hygiene in Melanesia – influencing and strengthening systems for climate-resilient WASH in underserved settlements


Funded by:


Phase I: Completed (January 2022 – September 2022)

Phase II: In Progress (January 2023 – December 2024)

Project Location:

Vanuatu, Fiji, PNG


Water for Women Fund

Project Category:

Applied Research

Research Partners:

Griffith University, University of South Pacific, University of Papua New Guinea, UACS Consulting

Research questions

Our research aims to answer the question: 

How can the climate resilience and social inclusion of WASH services inurban informal settlements be strengthened with locally adapted climate science and knowledge, planning support systems and champions?

Specifically, the research aims to answer the following sub-questions:

  1. What tools and activities can be shared, developed and adopted to compensate for the lack of local-scale, spatially-explicit data describing future climate hazards, like linking citizen science-based climate data
  2. What planning support systems (PSS) can be incorporated in existing urban and WASH planning systems to improve decisions in data-poor environments about climate-resilient WASH in informal settlements?
  3. What strategies are effective in influencing political and societal attitudes for improving WASH services in informal settlements, including which and how political, church, customary leaders and rights-holder organisations (RHOs) might champion this need?

We will undertake research and development on planning support systems (PSS) (tools and activities) for integrated and collaborative planning across different stakeholder groups; including citizen science to assist with localised climate knowledge; leveraging strengths of existing decision and PSS via cross‐country regional learning and sharing; and, research (formative and behavioural) to influence political and societal support for improved services to informal settlements.

By planning support systems, we mean information frameworks that integrate a range of information, including geospatial data, to support a specific planning context, such as, here, WASH in urban informal settlements. They might include frameworks, spatial platforms, data collection methodologies, visualisations, or decision support tools. We also want to support diverse voices to participate in planning processes, such as residents themselves, and those with intersecting gender, disability, and social exclusion experiences.

Desired outcomes

This research is intended to be closely partnered with stakeholders from national and town planning departments, WASH departments and water utilities, as well as learning from the experiences of settlement residents. We will codevelop recommendations for integrated and collaborative planning processes for climate-resilient WASH in marginalised urban environments.

The desired longer-term outcomes of this research are to:

  • Increase the inclusiveness of WASH planning in urban Melanesia so residents in informal settlements have access to more resilience WASH services.
  • Highlight the perspectives and voices of the residents of informal settlements in urban Melanesia.
  • Broaden the perspectives of urban planning managers in urban Melanesia to recognise different types of data and analyses that can contribute to resilient planning.
  • Contribute to an improved disaster and shock resiliency for urban environments in the Pacific.

Research approach

The project includes three key components:

  1. Collecting and collating disparate climate science and WASH information to inform planning support systems (including undertaking citizen science and community engagement approaches);
  2. Exploring PSS (existing and applicable), integrating the collected data into such systems, and applying the information to explore what climate‐resilient WASH systems might look like in this context; and
  3. What are the current political and societal attitudes to improving services to informal settlements, and how, through advocacy and champions, can this be influenced?

To accomplish these three components, our team, consisting of locally based research organisations partnered with the International WaterCentre at Griffith University, will conduct household interviews, surveys, and other participatory data collection methods; collect and validate relevant environmental and climate data; hold workshops and interviews with key relevant stakeholders; develop and test tools and activities to contribute to planning support systems relevant to each country.

Research results will be analysed and synthesised across the three countriesWe recognise the research will have different relevance to different users, and as such will be producing specific outputs relevant to in-country stakeholders, community members, and broader practitioner groups.


Melanesia is rapidly urbanising, at between 3-4% per year1. For example, the urban population of Vanuatu is expected to double between 2017 and 20272. In the absence of, or where limited supply of affordable housing exists, much of this urban growth will occur in informal settlements, though there are some examples of identified areas of housing growth, such as in Luganville, Vanuatu. Informal settlements are defined by the United Nations as lacking secure land or housing tenure, generally non-compliant with planning and land use regulations, often on marginal or hazardous land, and lacking access to infrastructure and services3.

Past research, including by IWC, has indicated that access to WASH services in urban and peri-urban informal settlements across Melanesia is broadly inadequate4. In addition, there is little evidence to suggest that WASH services that do exist for urban and peri-urban informal settlements are future-proof – they are not planned with resilience to shocks and change in mind, such as climate change or the needs of changing populations within water catchments.

Throughout 2022, Phase 1 of this project, based in urban areas of Vanuatu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, all of which have large informal urban and peri-urban settlements, as well as some designated areas of new housing growth, explored contextually relevant processes that enable urban WASH planning that improves the resilience of WASH service delivery models to climate change and future population changes. The research built on recent work integrating spatial analyses of climate and other environmental factors to identifying appropriate and resilient WASH services in informal settlements across Melanesia.

Key findings of this research included:

  1. Water and sanitation access in urban informal settlements should be considered as service delivery models, not just infrastructure. This allows for better identification of risk from climate hazards and opportunities to adapt or mitigate those risks, beyond just strengthening core infrastructure, such as robust conveyance networks, continuity in emptying services, and grey water management.
  2. There is some progress being made in Melanesian urban informal settlements with respect to formalisation and upgrading: Fiji is currently formalising 46 settlements across the country including service provision, Solomon Water has connected over 2,800 households in settlements to piped water in the last year, Papua New Guinea’s new Port Moresby Urban Development Plan describes their ongoing settlement upgrade process, and Vanuatu’s urban wastewater taskforce is considering sanitation in urban settlements. Notwithstanding progress, WASH services remain very unevenly distributed across Melanesian urban centres, particularly in urban informal settlements.
  3. There are opportunities for WASH service delivery, climate change hazard awareness and urban planning to become more integrated and planned in a collaborative way for urban informal settlements. This could include taskforces, sharing of tools and processes such as spatial analyses, and clear advocacy.
  4. There is a paucity of climate hazard data at the spatial scale required, to guide identification of climate-resilient water and sanitation service options for particular locations. Combining environmental data, with locally-derived data (e.g. from residents) has potential to be a feasible and effective proxy.
  5. Utilities tend to have preferred a single service type across their service area, but in addressing service area gaps, or expanding into new areas, they will need to offer a diversity of service models, or coordinate with other service providers to ensure city-wide accessibility to safe and climate-resilient services. The combination of user preferences and location appropriate services should guide resilient service delivery.
  6. Tackling planning for urban informal settlements to increase social inclusion will require political will, integration across key ministries and service providers, community ownership, and diversity in solutions.

Read our project blog posts

Postcards from the field – Port Vila

Pacific Researcher Exchange – from Suva to Port Villa

Pacific Islands Regional Knowledge and Learning Exchange: Suva, Fiji, 6 – 10 November 2023

A multi-stakeholder approach to address water and sanitation challenges in underserved settlements in PNG

Did you know? IWC research prioritises producing practical and usable tools


For more information, please contact Dr Regina Souter (Chief Investigator) or Rosie Sanderson (Project Manager and Co-researcher) at or


  1. Schrecongost, A., et al., Delivering water and sanitation to Melanesian informal settlements. Water: Journal of the Australian Water Association, 2015. 42(3): 40-43.
  2. Kiddle, G.L., et al., Unpacking the Pacific urban agenda: Resilience challenges and opportunities. Sustainability, 2017. 9(10): p. 1878.
  3. UN Habitat, Habitat III issue paper 22—informal settlements, in Paper presented at the Habitat III, United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, New York. 2015.  
  4. Souter, R. and P. Orams, Water and Sanitation Services for Informal Settlements in Honiara, Solomon Islands. 2019, The World Bank.

Photo Credit:

R.Sanderson, 2022

R.Souter, Nov 2013

R. Souter, Nov 2018

D.Hearn, May 2015