Port Vila is located within the South Pacific Convergence Zone, within the cyclone belt and approximately 50km east of the New Hebrides Trench, an active source of tectonic events that continue to trigger major earthquakes and tsunamis. Port Vila and its surrounding area possesses a diverse geological composition and wealth of exploitable natural resources. The shallow coastal areas abutting Port Vila provide access to marine materials, food products, and natural assets generating tourism-driven economic activity.
Port Vila is characterised by a two-season tropical climate, experiencing relatively mild annual average temperatures year-round. During the dry season (May-October) minimum and maximum temperatures average 20.1°C and 26.8°C respectively, while during wet season months (November-April) temperatures are slightly higher and average 22.7°C and 29.7°C, respectively. Port Vila’s climate is classified as tropical rainforest or equatorial (Köppen climate classification: Af).
The city experiences heavy rainfall and high humidity throughout the year, though inter-annual rainfall exhibits significant variability. Historically, roughly two thirds of Port Vila’s approximately 1500-4000mm of annual rainfall has fallen within the Wet Season with rainfall usually peaking in March (average precipitation of 321mm/month) and reaching its nadir in September (87mm/month average).
Port Vila is located on the south-west coast of the island of Efate, one of approximately 82 islands that comprise the Y-shaped archipelago in the South Pacific. Given the coastal location of the city, it is situated within both marine and coastal ecosystems. Within the land boundaries of Port Vila, the ecosystems have been altered significantly since the area was originally settled due to fairly intensive agricultural production.
The water catchment is located north of the city centre and east of the airport, where land use is intended to be restricted to non-intensive agricultural uses. However, enforcement has been inconsistent leading to sporadic housing development in recent years.
On the eastern edge of the municipal boundaries exist two lagoons (Erakor and Emten), which contain brackish mangrove and sea grass ecosystems that maintain low levels of salinity due to the lagoons’ location within the intertidal zone.
The coastal marine ecosystem surrounding the city includes extensive reef fisheries, providing an important local food source, feature for tourism, and location for resident recreation. The coastal marine ecosystem also supports the primary inter-island trade and transportation routes.
The provision of drinking water to Port Vila is the responsibility of the private firm UNELCO, which relies primarily on surface source collected from nearby catchments. Contamination by human and animal excrement remains an issue due to the lack of source protection as well as from waste water runoff during floods or heavy rainfall. The Ministry of Health (MoH) is responsible for water quality surveillance of all water supply systems.
Over 80% of all electricity generated in Port Vila is from diesel fuel, which is imported by the Pacific Petroleum Company and brought by tankers from Australia or Singapore. The country’s renewable energy sources (solar and wind generation) are substantial, although not yet utilized according to its potential. The average price for household customers in the current concession areas is 54.55 Vatu per kWh, which equals 58.92 USD cents. For consumers with a demand below 60kWh currently pay 18.89 Vatu/kWh or 20.24 USD cents. The electricity market in Vanuatu currently consists of two vertically integrated companies, which in their respective concession areas carry out all electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, supply, and customer services. In Port Vila power is supplied by Union Electrique du Vanuatu Limited (UNELCO).In 2012, the Government of Vanuatu initiated the “Energy Roadmap” intended to adapt energy generation to rely more on renewable sources and limit reliance on diesel-based electricity generation.
The city of Port Vila currently relies on a septic system for solid waste treatment. Services and associated sanitation were greatly improved with the construction of a sewage treatment facility in 2017. In comparison to rural areas, the proportion of households in urban areas with access to improved toilet facilities is much higher.
Surrounding Vila Harbour and set around a series of natural lagoons, beaches, and a series of islands, Port Vila continues to expand beyond its municipal boundaries, mainly to the north and east of the city centre.
Estimates suggest that roughly half of the approximately 24.3 km2 of the greater Port Vila urban footprint are within the administrative boundaries. Moreover, many of the fastest growing areas of Port Vila are located in these peri-urban zones, in areas characterised as either containing informal settlements (e.g. Blacksands) or areas that began as informal settlements but have subsequently been formalised through land tenure agreements (e.g. Melcoffe and Freshwota). The majority of this peri-urban growth is being accommodated through single-story, detached housing expansion into open space/formally agricultural land, with the exception of some key infill sites closer to the city centre.
All land rights within the Port Vila municipality were acquired from customary ownership by the State following Vanuatu’s Independence in 1980. Therefore all land within Port Vila continues to be owned by the State and leased to private entities and individuals through long-term land leases, a process which is overseen by the Department of Lands. Outside of the municipal boundaries, wherein the majority of the rapidly-growing peri-urban informal settlement is located, land remains under customary ownership.
While Port Vila is the largest city in Vanuatu and serves as its administrative and commercial centre, it remains relatively small in terms of population, scale of urban area, and corresponding infrastructure. Despite its size, Port Vila possesses a number of important physical assets including the Bauerfield International Airport, Central Hospital, a campus of the University of the South Pacific, the National Vanuatu Museum, and the port of Port Vila which processes nearly 70 percent of the country’s imports.
Port Vila retains its historic commercial centre, along with a few scattered historic residential neighbourhoods. The urban area is connected by a number of primary and secondary roads as well as water transportation utilised for commerce, tourism, and daily life. Due to tourism in Port Vila, the city and surrounding area is home to numerous hotels, and resorts.
The effects of Tropical Cyclone Pam can still be seen in certain areas of the city, but recent efforts by the local and national governments, in collaboration with international partners, is working to address specific vulnerabilities in local infrastructure and buildings. Both the Vanuatu Infrastructure Reconstruction and Improvement Project, approved in 2016, and the Vanuatu Aviation Investment Project, approved in 2015, are notable initiatives directly addressing deficiencies in infrastructure and prioritising repairs to schools, and government buildings, among other civic structures.