Port Vila, Vanuatu

Port Vila is the capital city and main economic hub of the island nation of Vanuatu. 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, Port Vila faces extensive environmental threats, evident in its recent ranking as the “world’s most exposed city to natural disasters.”[1] Such environmental threats, many of which are linked to the impacts of climate change, are exacerbated by existence of impoverished people, limited economic opportunity, and tenuous connectivity to external markets.


The city’s climate is classified as tropical rainforest or equatorial (Köppen climate classification: Af) and is characterised as experiencing heavy rainfall and high humidity throughout the year with no pronounced summer or winter season. The average precipitation for the year is 2336.8mm with rainfall usually peaking in January (average precipitation of 337.8mm/month) and reaching its nadir in October (94mm/month average).

Based on the most recent national census (2016), Port Vila has a population of approximately 51,500 and accounts for nearly 20 percent of the country’s total population. While the city experienced rapid growth between 1999 and 2009, increasing its population by over 50 percent, recent estimates indicate a slightly reduced growth rate over the past decade, a trend believed to stem, at least in part, from economic effects following the global financial crises in 2008.

Surrounding Vila Harbour, Greater Port Vila covers approximately 24.3km2, which is nearly evenly split between the official municipal boundary and extensive peri-urban areas that exist primarily in the west and northern edges of the city limits. Formally established in 1980, the municipality is governed by 14 representatives spread across five wards–Malapoa-Tagabe, Anabrou-Melcoffee, Freswota – Tassirriki, South, and Centre—though the governance structure for Greater Port Vila is complex and overlapping, due in large part to recent growth in the peri-urban population outside of the municipal boundaries.


While Port Vila has long been exposed to natural shocks, its continued growth, industrialization, and urbanization, coupled with climate-related increases in hazard intensity, has resulted in recent devastating events. In 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam, the most powerful cyclone ever recorded to make landfall in Vanuatu, damaged or destroyed 90 percent of all buildings in Port Vila, left nearly 30 percent of the country’s population homeless, and decimated nearly 90 percent of all subsistence crops, on which a large proportion of the population depends.

Within this context, and based on the analyses conducted by international actors working on resilience in Port Vila, it is possible to identify two main, interconnected strands of urban challenges. One challenge relates to the extensive variety and magnitude of environmental threats, coupled with, and exacerbated by, the contingent impacts of climate change. The other is derived from the degree to which the city remains simultaneously isolated from, and dependent on, external markets; structural vulnerabilities that are compounded by continued economic transition away from subsistence-based agricultural activities and towards low-value export products and tourism.

[1] Verisk Maplecroft (2015). Natural Hazards Risk Atlas.