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A Pacific first: water-sensitive infrastructure debuts in Fijian informal settlement

1 November 2022

Tamavua-i-Wai community leader Maciu Turagavou still remembers the days before electricity and telephones, and having to carve a path to get up a steep hill out of his community to get to town. He has seen much change over the 50 years he has lived in Tamavua-i-Wai. ‘RISE coming in 2017 is one of the biggest changes in the community,’ he says.

Mr Turagavou’s is the first informal settlement community in Fiji – and the Pacific – to be upgraded with RISE’s water-sensitive infrastructure to enhance critical access to water and sanitation.

On Friday 21 October, Fijian Government representatives, program partners, and residents from the 12 communities participating in RISE, gathered for a ceremony marking the handover of infrastructure to the community of Tamavua-i-Wai.

The infrastructure, servicing 40 households, aims to revitalise the informal settlement at the household- and community-scale from a holistic perspective of overall environmental and human health – addressing the challenging living conditions in the tidal zone.

The site features the full suite of water-sensitive technologies that make up RISE’s infrastructure upgrade: ‘green’ infrastructure including a nature-based constructed wetland system for treating wastewater; ‘grey’ infrastructure including paved pathways and improved drainage to mitigate floods and prevent ponding; and ‘smart’ pressure sewer systems with real-time remote monitoring to transfer wastewater from low-lying homes to the wetland treatment system.

Engagement and co-designing infrastructure with Tamavua-i-Wai residents began in 2017.

Speaking at the event, RISE Director Professor Diego Ramirez-Lovering from Monash University thanked the residents for their patience, from the early days of co-design meetings in 2017, to the beginning of construction in 2020, just days before global pandemic lockdowns.

‘I remember vividly the countless hours we spent here [before COVID] and we were welcomed so warmly with such a generous spirit, and I’m deeply thankful for that,’ Ramirez-Lovering said. ‘The generosity of spirit has not changed. Getting to this point today would not have been possible without the community’s sustained engagement and contributions, and that of our Fiji team.’

Currently about 80 per cent of Fijians have access to clean drinking water. The Fiji Ministry of Infrastructure Permanent Secretary Taitusi Vakadravuyaca said innovative revitalisation of communities will help meet national development targets.

‘Fiji has set an ambitious target of every Fijian – in rural and urban areas – having access to clean and safe water by 2031,’ Mr Vakadravuyaca said. ‘This partnership will assist Fiji achieve our set of targets.’

A constructed wetland will treat wastewater from 40 homes as it flows through plants and gravel media, before discharging cleaner water back into the environment.
Images: iTaukei Land Trust Board

New Zealand High Commissioner to Fiji Charlotte Darlow, whose government is funding infrastructure in the next tranche of RISE communities, highlighted the positive impacts that will ripple out beyond the community.

‘Tamavua-i-Wai has proved that the way that you can make projects work, be more resilient and sustainable, is by making sure that the community is carrying out the work,’ Ms Darlow said. ‘This home of the demonstration project becomes a centre of knowledge – the impacts of which will benefit not just Fiji, but will go out to the Pacific and the wider world.’

The choice for a grassroots-style community-led handover event was a deliberate one. It acknowledged the critical role that Tamavua-i-Wai residents have played to-date, and are set to play in the operations and maintenance of the infrastructure moving forward, supported by RISE and local authorities including the Water Authority of Fiji.

As such, local iTaukei (Indigenous Fijian) tradition infused the day. A whale’s tooth was presented from RISE and accepted by the community – a gift, and symbol of respect.

Tamavua-i-Wai demonstrates how water-sensitive infrastructure, co-designed with community, functions practically in a Fijian informal settlement context. This now adds a second RISE demonstration site to parallel the Batua demonstration site in Indonesia.

In some of his last official duties on behalf of Tamavua-i-Wai, Mr Turagavou says he is looking forward to handing on his leadership responsibilities to the next person. With all the change he has experienced and helped drive, he has high hopes for the next chapter.

‘This is a very big change. Very big. Sometimes we have flooding, but now you can see people walking along footpaths, not walking around in muddy areas from here to there.

‘I have been a spokesman of Tamavua-i-Wai, explaining to RISE and others what the community wants. It’s my duty and I have enjoyed it. I’m now looking forward to the next generation here being even happier. We will have a better future.’

Cover image: Iliesa Wise (RISE), New Zealand High Commissioner to Fiji Charlotte Darlow, Tamavua-i-Wai community leader Maciu Turagavou, Ministry of Infrastructure Permanent Secretary Taitusi Vakadravuyaca and Reverand Ledua Tamani.