From Suva to Port Vila: Researcher exchanges accelerating SDG6 progress in Melanesian Pacific

Camari Koto (centre) and members of the WASH project research team in Vanuatu standing together for a group photo in Manples informal settlement. Camari is wearing a bright blue and yellow dress and everyone is smiling at the camera.

In 2023, Camari Koto (centre) travelled from her home campus in Suva to USP Emalus campus in Vanuatu for the 'south south' researcher exchange (IWC / Benny Ruosso)


In 2023, Camari Koto, a social researcher from the University of the South Pacific Fiji and Fiji Project Manager for the Climate-Resilient Inclusive Urban WASH in Melanesian Pacific research program, participated in a ‘south-south researcher exchange’ a part of the project’s goal to strengthen local research capacity.

Camari travelled from her home campus in Suva, to USP Emalus campus in Vanuatu, where she spent time with other members of the urban WASH research team, and visited some urban informal/underserved settlements in Port Vila. Below, Camari shares her reflections on the idea of researcher exchanges.



As a curious Pasifika mid-career researcher, to be in the place and personally gaining additional insights affirmed the importance of ‘place-based’ learning and context in clarifying certain issues under study. The ‘talanoa’ sessions with Ni-Vanuatu at Emalus Campus, USP and with other WASH stakeholders helped to clear some of my misunderstandings about informal settlements in the Pacific, which were based on what I know about settlements in Fiji. 

For example, in Fiji, the term ‘informal settlement’ is common language and is generally understood and defined in Fiji, through a formalised legal land tenureship perspective. Any place of residence without legal tenure is an informal settlement.

In Port Villa, the term ‘informal settlements’ is not used commonly, and instead people are referred to as ‘squatters’ from ‘squatter settlements.’ This is defined around the structure of the settlements and whether it is a planned or an unplanned area for residences; most are on customary land and so legal land tenureship is less used in defining the status of the settlement (many residents have permission from the customary landowners to live on the land).

In a conversation with a Manples resident during the community visit, ‘informal settlement’ is understood as an area that is not formal:


“It’s not a formal area like what we see for most places and houses in the city, where houses are not built anyhow” (Manples resident); they are built in line with building regulations.


Despite such terminology differences, what was clearly visible as similar in both cities are the sub-standard quality of houses, poor drainage and sanitation systems, high solid waste pollution and overcrowding.

Accompanying the research team for a survey in Manples was a unique exercise for me, because it provided an opportunity to visit the same types of communities of interest but in a different country. This was valuable because of the much richer insights I have gained on the urban WASH context of Vanuatu, which helps me to understand and research this issue across the Pacific more broadly.

But importantly, it also gave me the opportunity and privilege to engage with and mentor some Pasifika early career field researchers, which was a beneficial learning experience for all of us involved.



The south-south researcher exchanges are an important of part of the International Water Centre’s Water for Women research project, which includes an objective to contribute to local researcher capacity for water and WASH research. This is critical for locally led research to grow and thrive, and essential to inform local policies and programs. 



This reflection was first published on the International WaterCentre blog in February 2024 and has been republished with permission.


As we mark International Women's Day on 8th March 2024, advancing gender equality is more crucial than ever.

Throughout the world, women are at the frontlines of climate change and it’s impacts on water security. With primary responsibility for meeting caregiving and household water needs, including for sanitation and hygiene (WASH) purposes, women are water and WASH experts in their communities.

Investing in women benefits everyone. Women hold often untapped local and traditional knowledge that can help solve context-specific climate challenges and strengthen community resilience. Communities with women leaders tend to be stronger, more resilient, more equitable, and better equipped to face the challenges posed by climate change. Yet women remain underrepresented in decision-making about water, WASH, and climate change at all levels - from local to international bodies. 

With the 2030 deadline on the Sustainable Development Goals in sight, we must mobilse the diverse experiences and wisdom of women for a safe, just and climate-resilient future. We must invest in women to accelerate progress on SDG6 and build a peaceful and fairer future for all.


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