WASH, foodways, markets, women and COVID-19 in Vanuatu

Full research title: Supporting urban food security and livelihoods through improving WASH outcomes for protection against COVID-19 in markets and food /agricultural chains: WASH, foodways, markets, women and COVID-19 in Vanuatu

Funded by:


Completed (October 2020 – June 2021)

Project Location:



Water for Women Fund

Project Category:

Applied Research


The COVID-19 pandemic has shocked global and regional economies. Although at this stage the Pacific Island Countries (PICs) have recorded only a smaller number of COVID-19 cases, many countries have declared a state of public health emergency and implemented numerous mitigation measure, such as border closures, lockdowns, curfews, social distancing measures, hygiene promotion campaigns and, in some cases, restrictions on the movement of people and goods. Many PICs have a narrow economic base and have suffered from a decline in overall economic activity, disruptions to supply chains, and job losses (DFAT, 2020). The pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities, particularly gender inequality (CARE, 2020; UN Women, 2020), and exposing vulnerabilities in social, political, economic, and biodiversity systems. Dampened economic activity, in particular, has serious repercussions for the developmental outcomes of PICs and their ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Lockdowns and disruptions have revealed the fragility of people’s access to essential goods and services, especially health systems, safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, and food systems. In all these areas, critical weaknesses, inequalities, and inequities have come to light.

Food supply chains are of particular concern, proving vulnerable to various COVID-19 induced challenges. In the short food supply chains that dominate many PICs food systems, vulnerabilities have developed due to temporary closures and restrictions imposed on informal markets, as well as a drop in demand due to economic conditions.  Numerous restrictions have been imposed on key markets in some PICs, such as Vanuatu and Solomon Islands. Such measures stem from the risks posed by markets due to their high density, often poor WASH service availability, and low capacity to enforce hygiene and social distancing.

Markets are a key driver of economic prosperity in PICs  that provide a much needed source of income for the most vulnerable members of society – workers in the informal economy generally and women more specifically.  Markets are important reservoirs of resilience and sustainable economic practices, enhancing self-reliance and supporting not just economic but social and cultural well-being by nourishing rural (island) and urban (town) linkages. Importantly, markets are a crucial source of food security (especially in urban and peri-urban locales) and remain the principal means by which many people in urban and peri-urban areas  obtain their food (World Vision, 2018). Elsewhere in the world, informal market restrictions and closures due to COVID-19 are disrupting the availability of affordable and nutritional food (IPES, 2020), and there is concern that this may occur in PICs (United Nations, 2020).

In addition to the informal market sector, other critical agricultural domains include rural cooperatives  and the cattle industry, both of which are important revenue sources at household, community and national levels. These combined arenas – informal markets, cooperatives, cattle farming, and short food supply chains – make-up the most salient features of Vanuatu’s foodways. However, the WASH situation in these contexts remain little understood. Moreover, real challenges surround the question of how best to effectively address WASH in these settings and also how to balance roles and responsibilities between the public, business, and government. Given that washing hands with soap and clean water is one of the first lines of defence against COVID-19 addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, including those with inadequate access to water, is essential in effectively preventing COVID-19. Filling current WASH gaps in these areas is an important first step.

Research Questions

This research seeks to strengthen the WASH dimensions of the current raft of socioeconomic research responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the PICs (especially Vanuatu), better inform policy responses and ultimately improve WASH services and outcomes through a strategic research-to-policy collaborative approach that has discrete (national) and wider (regional and global) benefits across short, medium and longer-term timeframes.

The key questions guiding this research are:

  1. What is the current WASH situation in market houses in three areas of Vanuatu (Port Vila, Luganville and Lakatoro)?
  2. What is the current WASH situation in a number of select food/agriculture workplaces?
  3. What is the WASH situation along the whole food/agriculture supply chain (from garden to market), and how do issues of gender, social inequalities and other drivers of exclusion intersect with WASH access and services along the agri-food supply chain?
  4. What WASH knowledge, practices, policies and capacities currently exist amongst market vendors, market managers and food/agriculture workplace employees and managers?
  5. What are the key WASH challenges and opportunities that exist in market houses, food supply chains and workplaces?

Desired Outcomes

The outcomes of this research will  assist in filling current gaps in WASH knowledge associated with markets and other short food supply chains, improve awareness of WASH-related vulnerabilities to COVID-19 in these sectors, and ultimately contribute to improved protection against COVID-19 infection.

The intended longer term impacts outcomes of this research are to:

  • Build health security knowledge and preparedness in food supply chains, especially market contexts but also select other agri-food domains (cooperatives and livestock [cattle] sector)
  • Build WASH knowledge, capacity and applied research skills amongst research partners
  • Contribute to the resilience of urban food security systems to COVID-19 (as well as the transmission of other detrimental communicable diseases)
  • Contribute to the economic stability of vendors, the majority of whom are women
  • Advance understandings of short food supply chains in PIC’s through producing a Framework and Guide for WASH actors and organisations for use in other similar countries in the Pacific island region.

Research approach

The research utilises a mixed methods approach consisting of surveys and key informant interviews with market vendors, managers, cooperative members and other agri-food employees and managers) alongside structured facility observations and food supply chain analysis. Data collection will be undertaken by our partners at The University of the South Pacific and World Vision-Vanuatu, as well as by two ni-Vanuatu researchers – Ms Joana Malua and Mr Jimmy Rantes.

Research results will be analysed, paying particular attention to gender and forms of marginalisation, and key findings summarised and discussed with stakeholders through workshops in each case-study locale (Port Vila, Luganville and Lakatoro) to facilitate dialogue, ideas, and co-identify solutions. Based on this engagement process appropriate outputs will then be developed and disseminated.

Project Updates

  • Read the project outline here
  • Read the situational analysis of water, sanitation, and hygiene services in market places in Vanuatu here
  • Read our scoping review and policy analysis of WASH, COVID-19 and the Agri-business Sector in Vanuatu here
  • Read the Framework for Assessing WASH Vulnerabilities to Health here

Image Credit

Krishna Kotra & Tima Allanson


Project Manager

Mark Love

International WaterCentre


Bowman, C.C,, Jozefina, E.A.,  and Manuel, C. 2009. Women in Vanuatu: Analyzing Challenges to Economic Participation. The World Bank, Washington, D.C.

CARE, 2020. Rapid Gender Analysis COVID-19 Vanuatu. 11 April, 2020 (version 1).

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), 2020. Vanuatu COVID-19 Development Response Plan. Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response. DFAT, Australian Government.  October, 2020.

International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES), 2020. COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems: Symptoms, causes, and potential solutions. Communiqué by IPES-Food, April 2020.

United Nations, 2020. Joint Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 in the Pacific (terms of reference document).

UN Women, 2020. The COVID-19 Outbreak and Gender: Key Advocacy Points from Asia and the Pacific, March, 2020.

World Vision Vanuatu, 2018. Food Security in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Vanuatu, Port Vila: World Vision Vanuatu, Wan Smolbag, Australian Aid.  Prepared by Dr. Sarah James.