Above: Port Vila, Vanuatu, seen from the World War II memorial which overlooks the town.
I had heard of Vanuatu before. I think it was in 2006 when I was still working in my previous organisation. We had a project building government capacity for climate change negotiation in three countries – Nepal, Fiji, and Indonesia. Fiji was classified as one of 20 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) dotted around the South Pacific. Vanuatu was another, and that’s where I heard of it for the first time, though I never thought I would get the chance to step foot on it almost eight years later.
Vanuatu has only 250,000 citizens who inhabit some 65 of 83 islands – this is less than a single highly populated district in Jakarta, Indonesia. Yet, as with some other South Pacific countries, the management of water resources is a critical issue here. Right after Tropical Cyclone Lusi struck in March 2014, the Government of the Republic of Vanuatu succeeded in rapidly assessing the water resources situation. It took a month of work, and all surveys and mapping were paper-based. From March, until we held a training session on Akvo FLOW in early June for UNICEF-South Pacific and the Department of Geology, Mines, and Water Resource (DGMWR), the stacked pile of those survey papers remained untouched.
Above: most public water facilities are kept locked. The stored water is made available only during emergency situations when household tanks run out.
After being jointly administered by Britain and France from 1906, Vanuatu declared its independence in 1980. The one thing the country is famous for is the kava drink. It’s made from extract of the kava plant (Piper methysticum). I believe it is this traditional beverage that has kept the people of Vanuatu, known as Ni-Vanuatu, away from alcohol. The nakamal or, as it is called nowadays, the kava bar, is a kind of traditional meeting house usually made mostly of wood with woven rumbia (a kind of Metroxylon sagu) leaves for the roof material. Rumbia roofs can last two to three years and are very environmentally friendly. Traditionally nakamals are used for community discussions or special ceremonies, and kava drinking goes hand in hand with these occasions. But nowadays, kava bars are everywhere and people can enjoy the drink and experience its relaxing sedative qualities. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why people in Vanuatu are so friendly and open.
Our Akvo FLOW training nakamal was a little different, however. It was actually a meeting room with a 1Mb wifi connection. But, in keeping with discussions traditionally held in nakamals, the most important aspect was the willing heart of the 25 participants to carry on sustainable development in Vanuatu, especially in the water sector.
We know that sustainable development has four pillars; economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, social sustainability, and cultural sustainability. But now I think it has one more. We can agree or disagree, but I think development also needs to be technologically sustainable. That’s why Akvo FLOW is open source, in line with our vision to enhance transparency and open government data for development.
Above: Christopher Ioan, Director of DGMWR, Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, gives direction on shaping the survey using FLOW during the training session in Port Vila. Christoper showed great leadership, both in the training and in general for his country. This water point mapping joint initiative from DGMWR and UNICEF wouldn’t have happened if not for his good governance. Christopher sadly passed away last year, but his hard work stays with us.On the third day of the training in Port Vila, all the participants decided to join us on a two hour road trip north across Etafe Island followed by 30 minutes on a boat to Nguna Island, where freshwater is barely available except from rain water harvests. I saw water tanks throughout the neighbourhood, next to houses and public buildings such as schools and churches. Do you think a 600 litre tank is sufficient for the whole year for a family of three or four? No, it is not. Just for cooking and drinking, a person ideally needs eight litres per day. For four people that’s 32 litres. During the rainy season, it’s not a problem, but during the dry season, they will depend on the generosity of neighbours who may have some to spare, or the pastor to open the lock on the tap.
Above: Pastor Jacob (left) is interviewed by Nelli next to the concrete tank belonging to the church. Sorry, the tap is locked – it only gets opened when you are really thirsty.
On the fourth day of training, we went to another island a little bit closer than the previous one, called Lelepa Island. Everyone used their android smartphone to carry out a water point mapping survey using FLOW. Beside water tanks, we encountered a lot of grapefruit, breadfruit, mandarins, ambarella (Spondia dulcis), bananas, papayas and many nuts such as coconuts, peanuts, and natapoa nuts (Terminalia catappa). Of course, those were very lovely.
Surprises always comes late!
Above: dots in the Pacific. Nguna Island is home to most of the population of Vanuatu and is where the majority of the Republic’s tropical fruits are grown. During the Akvo FLOW field training, the participants mapped over 200 water points in just two days.
But they make you happy most of the time, don’t they? The magnificent work of the previous few days finally paid off. Looking at their results on the FLOW dashboard, the course participants could see 200 more water points mapped after only two days of data collection in the field. Surveying and mapping has never been so easy, and piles of papers are a thing of the past. For the participants, the early signs of working with FLOW indicated that things would continue to move forward quickly and easily.
Above: a training participant patiently types line by line on a gadget not much bigger than his thumb. The respondent is also very cooperative and their are lots of conversational interludes among the survey questions.
Surprisingly, the GSM network in Vanuatu is quite good. Even the 2G connection is quite reliable. For Akvo FLOW, this is enough for the device and the server to communicate perfectly to make sure data is sent intact.
I feel science and technology are essential foundations for sustainable development. With the experience I have accumulated in recent years of seeing people in different organisations and settings undergoing FLOW training and then using it in the field, I feel pretty confident that for Vanuatu, the process will be accelerated because there is good will for the government, adequate access to information, reliable infrastructure and good human resource capacity.
The training week ended in a kava bar where my fellow course leader, Amitangshu, and I were invited to taste the famous Vanuatu remedy guaranteed to rejuvenate you after a busy and productive week. I did enjoy it, but for me, tanna coffee from the volcanic Tanna Island is definitely more enjoyable.
Aulia Rahman is an Akvo consultant based in Indonesia.
Photos by Aulia.