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Enabling socio-technical transitions to sustainable urban water management in the South West Pacific Region

posted on 21.02.2017, 04:59 by Poustie, Michael Shane
Cities in developing countries are growing rapidly; placing extreme pressures on governments and infrastructure to keep up with the increasing demand for services. The provision of safe and reliable water supply, along with sustainable approaches to wastewater and drainage management, are critical development needs in developing contexts. Scholars continue to suggest that conventional approaches to urban water service provision may not be the optimal solution: technically, environmentally, economically or socially. Some scholars and practitioners are suggesting that a fundamental change in the nature of urban water service provision is required, and especially in developing country contexts. Sustainable urban water management (SUWM) is an approach that presents an alternative to the conventional, centralised water servicing paradigm. While the principles and practices of SUWM have been widely studied in the developed world, there has, to date been limited research on this topic in the developing world. This is despite the great need that developing cities have for improved water management and their potential for rapid implementation of more sustainable solutions. An inter-disciplinary approach is required to see the widespread uptake of SUWM and its associated technologies in developing contexts, since technical solutions alone (without the enabling support and commitment from institutional actors) will not achieve transformative change. Employing a case-study research approach this thesis explores the socio-technical components required to enable a transition to SUWM in the developing context of the South West Pacific. It uses engineering and social science research methods to examine: (i) the current state of the governance of urban water management; (ii) the future physical forms required for increasing the sustainability of urban water service provision and (iii) their performance; (iv) the future governance characteristics and attributes required to enable change; and (v) the processes that might drive change. In other words an inter-disciplinary, mixed methods research approach was utilised to understand the direction of change required, the attributes which enable change to occur and transitions oriented processes that may promote and stimulate transformations towards SUWM. Overall, the results demonstrated that both institutional and technical change is required for urban centres in the South West Pacific to transition to SUWM. Institutionally, there is a requirement for increased receptivity to the principles and practices of SUWM, especially awareness of sustainable solutions available to be implemented. The study identified eleven critical attributes that will increase absorptive capacity (the ability to incorporate and implement new knowledge). These attributes will assist the urban water sector to leapfrog towards sustainable practice. Their development needs to be underpinned by capacity building based upon long term, partnership and mentoring. Technically, the findings demonstrated that conventional approaches to urban water servicing will not yield the best outcomes for the South West Pacific region. The findings showed that a hybrid approach, utilising both centralised and decentralised urban water technologies, leads to improved environmental outcomes, as well as increased resilience, robustness, and technical performance of urban water systems. The results therefore challenge the dominant paradigm of designing fully centralised urban water infrastructure in developing contexts. This research also demonstrated that an adapted transitions management process presents an effective methodology for enabling the development of a locally derived vision for a sustainable urban water future in Port Vila. This showed that the adapted transitions management process can be a stimulus for promoting transformative change in developing contexts. The work had a very strong practical focus on supporting Port Vila to transition towards sustainable urban water infrastructure planning. Through the course of the work, the author engaged with all relevant stakeholders within the Port Vila urban water sector (Government departments, AusAID, NZAID and the Asian Development Bank (ADB)). Concurrent to this research project, the ADB and AusAID were developing the Port Vila Urban Development Project. This is a AU$40 million infrastructure project addressing roads, drainage and wastewater management in Port Vila. Through partnerships with other stakeholders, small but significant steps have been achieved in ensuring that Water Sensitive Urban Design technologies are included into the Port Vila Urban Development Project. The author is humbled that through this research program on ground infrastructure change is occurring in Port Vila. The findings of this research highlight the opportunities which are present for the South West Pacific, and indeed other developing country contexts, to undergo a socio-technical transition and implement the principles and practices of sustainable urban water management.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Ana Deletic

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Civil Engineering


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Engineering