- Research project
- – Western Pacific
In November 2023, the International WaterCentre (IWC), Griffith University – with the support of the Australian Government’s Water for Women Fund (WfW) – brought 10 researchers, government and water utility stakeholders from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu to Suva, Fiji, for a five-day Regional Knowledge and Learning Exchange focused on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). In Suva, they were joined by three senior and four emerging Fijian researchers, and for some activities, numerous representatives from local and national government ministries, and other organisations. Eight staff from IWC participated in the event.
The participants are associated with two IWC applied research projects: PaCWaM2: Supporting decentralised rural water supply in Pacific Islands (WRA-CR02), and Planning for climate-resilient urban WASH in Melanesian Pacific (WRA-CR09).
The IWC regional learning and exchange event was run in parallel with the Water for Women (WfW) Pacific Learning Exchange, which brought together participants from other Water for Women projects across the Pacific. Our project teams benefited from participating in 2 days of WfW-run sessions and activities, giving them the opportunity to discuss ideas and strategies for climate resilient and inclusive WASH in the Pacific.
The IWC Regional Knowledge and Learning Exchange sought to address the unique challenges in improving water security and WASH outcomes faced by Pacific Island nations in both rural and urban contexts. We aimed to foster a collective effort to advance research and the evidence-base for improved water management and WASH initiatives in the region. The prime objectives of the exchange were to
Inter-personal communication is a vital and potent means of learning and sharing – captured in Pasifika contexts in processes labelled as tok stori, talanoa and storian. And bringing together regionally diverse participants from both academia and government is a (generally) undervalued and rare occasion. This was more than a conference or a workshop; rather, it was a hands-on suite of sessions, activities, and field-visits, spread over five days, that allowed for learning, planning, information and knowledge exchange, and relationship building and strengthening designed to extend beyond the in-country event itself.
For the rural project team, there were many highlights but two stand-out. First, was the Tuesday morning session on Drinking Water Safety and Security Planning (DWSSP, led by Dr Regina Souter and Suliasi Batikawai (IWC), with five Environmental Health Officers from the Fiji Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MoHMS), the Chief Health Inspector Vimal Deo and the National WASH coordinator Toga Vosataki. During the session, IWC shared the findings of research about the effectiveness and opportunities to strengthen DWSSP, that was conducted with DWSSP facilitators from MoMHS, and Water Committee members from villages that have completed DWSSP. Gaston Theophile (Provincial Water Supervisor, SHEFA Province, Department of Water), Heather Molitambe (The University of the South Pacific, Vanuatu) and Dr Mark Love (IWC) presented on DWSSP research from an earlier WfW project in Vanuatu, and this proved to be extremely interesting to the MoHMS staff from Fiji, especially Vanuatu’s structured whole-of-government process to facilitate DWSSP, assess and prioritise the water system needs across villages, and allocate funding for improvements. There was keen interest and discussion in understanding the Vanuatu policy context, where DWSSP forms the cornerstone of the government’s rural community water management approach through the National Implementation Plan and Capacity Assistance Programme. The outsourcing of DWSSP community training to non-government entities – private sector and non-government organisations through a competitive tender process – was also of particular interest.
The other stand-out was a field-visit to an Ecological Purification System (EPS). Fiji has over 100 EPS and leads the Pacific in this innovative method of improving rural water quality. At the request one of our ni-Vanuatu colleagues, we arranged with the Fiji Department of Water and Sewerage (DWS) to host a site visit to inspect an EPS and talk with the community and Water Committee and community about their experiences. Mr Vishwa Jeet and Meli Waiwalu, from DWS, hosted our visit to Malabe village, in central Viti Levu. The visit was extremely valuable, with both the Malabe community deeply appreciating the visit from such a diverse array of Pacifika peoples, and our participants – especially government department water professionals from Vanuatu and Solomon Islands – relishing the opportunity to learn about how EPS works and what the operation and maintenance of such systems entail.
The reflections from our research colleagues involved in the rural activities reflect the immense value of this exchange opportunity.
“I feel like I learned lots and lots of new knowledge and skills … I feel empowered, there’s some very influential women in the group discussions … (SF-Solomon Islands).
“… I got motivated because, like first time, I thought the Solomon team was just working by themselves …. but really … it’s really a big thing and we are truly working together as partners. We are truly collaborative, and this really triggers my motivation because I have a great team around me. When I go to community, I’m taking the whole team from the Pacific, including Australia, and the donors like Water for Women … So I have to do my job really well so that I can reflect the whole team positively”. (CB-Solomon Islands).
“I learned a lot and shared a lot with other Melanesian countries, all those experiences are compiling to make a better understanding on our society’s communities and countries. Thanks again for inviting me on this exchange”. (GT – Vanuatu)
For the urban research team, the first of two standout moments was a workshop in the IWC focusing on engaging stakeholders to discuss the utility of proposed research planning support tools. The workshop drew in 15 local stakeholders, from a range of national ministries and departments, including Dept of Water and Sanitation, Climate Change Division of the Office of Prime Minister, Suva City Council, as well participants Civil Society Organisations, including PIANGO, the Soqosoqo Vaka Marama (Womens’ Group), and, representative from of one of the research study settlements.
They tackled key points like barriers and opportunities in using data and planning tools, suggestions for advocacy through champions, and strategies for engaging other stakeholders, providing the research team with some very constructive feedback. There was keen interest in participating in the region-wide Community of Practice on spatial analysis and GIS to support WASH planning planned for 2024.
The urban research team also enjoyed the opportunity of a site visit to a settlement participating in the RISE (Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments) project (rise-program.org). The RISE team explained the decentralized sanitation solution in simple terms – blackwater segregation at homes, a simplified sewerage network, and treatment with a baffled anaerobic reactor and two constructed wetlands. More than that, they highlighted the importance of ownership of the system by the community and the planned transition of governance and operation of the system for lasting positive impact.
IWC’s Pacific Water and WASH Regional Knowledge and Learning Exchange event proved to be a pivotal platform for collaborative knowledge-sharing and cross-cultural insights. The targeted agenda and diverse range of activities – with varying levels of structure – facilitated a deep exploration of WASH-related challenges, successes, and innovations from across the region. As participants return to their respective roles, they carry with them not only newfound knowledge but also a shared commitment to addressing the unique WASH challenges faced by Pacific communities. Next year, many of these participants will re-convene in Port Vila, Vanuatu, for a final Regional Knowledge and Learning Exchange.