The path to inclusive WASH services and climate resilience in urban informal settlements

A residence in an informal urban settlement in Port Vila, Vanuatu with a water storage tank located outside. There are clothes hanging under the corrigated iron roof eaves on a string line beside and behind it.

A residence with a water storage tank situated in an informal settlement in Port Vila, Vanuatu (IWC / R Sanderson)

Access to WASH services in urban and peri-urban informal settlements across Melanesia is broadly inadequate, and there is little evidence to suggest existing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services are future-proof. That is, they are not planned with resilience to shocks and climate change in mind.

To address this, the International WaterCentre (IWC) at Griffith University, supported by the Australian Government through a Water for Women Innovation and Impact (I&I) grant, set out to investigate how urban planning processes in Melanesia could be strengthened through participation and integration to improve the resilience of WASH service delivery in informal settlements within the urban footprint.

With a strong partnership between IWC, the University of the South Pacific (USP), and Urban Analytics and Complex Systems (UACS) Consulting, researchers undertook the project, Planning for Climate-Resilient Urban WASH in Pacific Islands. The research team used a range of mixed methods to work in a participatory manner with informal settlement residents and stakeholders. The approach included desktop research, innovative and context-specific spatial analysis, household surveys, interviews, photovoice techniques, and stakeholder engagement. WASH access in eight settlements across Fiji and Vanuatu were characterised and existing urban planning processes explored.

A toilet in an informal settlement in Suva, Fiji, sitauted beside a waterway.

“That is what we have observed – once a small settlement is established, in one to two years only, the size of the settlement would have almost double[d] in size. That is a challenge that we are trying to figure out how to plan for this.”

- A Suva City Council urban planner

The study findings provide regionally appropriate evidence about what kinds of processes and systems could be explored within different urban contexts in Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The key research findings include:

  1. Strengthening core infrastructure alone is insufficient. Water and sanitation access in urban informal settlements should be viewed as service delivery models, not just infrastructure, to identify and address climate-related risks effectively.
  2. A one-size-fits-all approach for water and sanitation service delivery doesn't work for diverse urban settlements, which vary topographically, geographically, economically, and socially. Preferences for service types also differ among residents.
  3. While some progress has been made in formalising and upgrading Melanesian informal settlements in Fiji, Solomon Islands, PNG and Vanuatu, WASH services remain unevenly distributed in these urban centres, especially in informal settlements.
  4. Access to climate-resilient services varies widely, from 98% in Suva, Fiji, to 51% in Honiara, Solomon Islands, with the most common sanitation model being on-site pit or tank-based systems, often inadequately designed and maintained. Residents rarely seek assistance for damaged WASH access, and future climate concerns will further impact access.
  5. There is a lack of climate hazard data at the necessary spatial scale to inform resilient WASH options. Combining environmental data with locally sourced information offers a potential solution.
  6. Integration and collaboration between WASH service delivery, climate change awareness, and urban planning are needed in informal settlements. Taskforces, data sharing, and advocacy can facilitate this.
  7. The political landscape around improving WASH services in Fiji has shifted from eviction-focused policies to supporting service improvement. In Vanuatu, conflicts between landowners and settlers, possibly exacerbated by climate migration, pose challenges, but informal institutions hold potential influence.
  8. Planning for urban informal settlement improvement and social inclusion requires political commitment, inter-ministerial coordination, community ownership, and diverse solutions.


“This is the first time I am involved in work and research on WASH and I really appreciated the new insights on the multidimensional nature of WASH. Especially on how it allows varied entry points in conceptualising general socio-economic conditions in informal settlements and thinking about potential improvements in these vulnerable areas. Another 'first' for me is the use of Photovoice as a method and tool to engage more deeply with the community. The visual representation of the community's WASH challenges and their narration of these realities can be a powerful advocacy tool.”

-  A University of the South Pacific researcher

A researcher sits with a woman on a bench in an outdoor area of an informal settlement in Port Vila, Vanuatu. The researcher is holding a phone and speaking to information displayed on it as the woman listens intently. They are undertaking community research as part of the project.

Broader WASH sector contributions

This research has been documented in a series of briefs for WASH practitioners and policymakers in the region. An academic paper for global WASH professionals and researchers has also been published. The research has been positively received by key stakeholders, including in government, non-government organisations and water authorities, practitioners and researchers.

Key opportunities for policymakers in the region include:

  1. Localised resilient solutions: Prioritise climate-resilient WASH models tailored to local needs and sustainability.
  2. Collaborative efforts: Foster partnerships between WASH providers, utilities and organisations for improved service delivery.
  3. City-wide inclusive sanitation: Promote city-wide service coverage through adaptable service options.
  4. Advocacy and knowledge sharing: Support advocacy platforms for solution sharing across sectors.
  5. Effective data utilisation: Utilise available spatial tools and datasets for informed planning.
  6. Local knowledge integration: Include resident knowledge in the absence of comprehensive climate data.
  7. Cross-sectoral engagement: Use tools for cross-sectoral communication and cooperation.
  8. Reinforced regulations: Develop sanitation by-laws emphasising climate resilience.
  9. Affordability measures: Ensure affordability for vulnerable communities with financing options.
  10. Climate finance integration: Align climate financing with resilient WASH services in informal settlements.
  11. Integrated approach: Commit to holistic planning, community involvement and diverse solutions for informal settlement development.


Learning and knowledge from the project:



Above left: A toilet in an informal settlement next to a waterway in Suva, Fiji (USP / E Turaga)

Above: Undertaking community research in informal settlements in Port Vila, Vanuatu (USP / H Molitambe)

Contact Us