Roads and Motor Transport
Malekula has one of the most extensive road systems of any of Vanuatu's islands, with only Efate and Tanna comparing. All-weather coral roads extend from Malua Bay on the dog's face to Tisman on its back, with an extension under construction south to Banam Bay. An all-weather road also extends from north of Lakatoro across the island to Unmet under the dog's chin, with a spur south to Lambubu. Another spur runs north from Unmet to Amokh, and this is being extended to Lekhan, just south of Malua Bay. Dry season roads extend this system from Malua Bay south to Wiliek, from Banam Bay south to Asuk Bay, and from Lambubu south to Vinmavis. There is an all-weather road extending east from Brenwe to Leviamp, but the Brenwe river cuts it off from the road to Unmet. Another stretch of isolated all-weather road runs from the Port Sandwich wharf to Lamap at the base of the dog's back and south to the airport.
The weak points of this road system are the river crossings. The Brenwe River mentioned above almost completely cuts off the Brenwe-Leviamp road. The Pankumu River between Unua and Tisman on the dog's back is impassable after a heavy rain and during much of the wet season, cutting off the southern portion of the east coast road. Before it was bridged, the Orap River on the back of the dog's head was a permanent obstacle that trucks could only cross by a hand-pulled ferry. Besides Malekula's two bridges (there is a small one between Atchin and Vao), there are three types of water crossings: gravel fords, concrete fords, and culverts covered with coral fill. The culverts do not seem to work well. Whenever there is an exceptionally heavy rain, debris washed down the rivers plug them, and then water runs over them and washes out the coral fill. Cyclone Bola of February, 1988, which dumped 45 cm. of rain during 5 days, washed out or heavily damaged every culvert crossing on Malekula. I think that, at crossings that are almost always fordable, some of the culvert crossings should be replaced with concrete fords. For the other culvert crossings, aid funding should be sought for bridge construction. (Note: two concrete and culvert "bridges", one north of Atchin at the Palanua River and one north of Bushmans Bay at the Mbatniri River were destroyed by Bola. The Orap bridge was undamaged, even though the river ran right over it.)
Another weakness of Malekula's road system is maintenance. The decisions to extend the system are made on strictly political grounds, with no economic analysis being made. No consideration is taken of the increased maintenance costs of the new roads, and the Public Works road maintenance budget has not been increased for several years. During my two years here, Public Work's road maintenance machinery has been occupied each dry season with the construction of new roads. Road maintenance has not been sufficient.
There are often calls for the construction of "agricultural feeder roads", but it is hard to justify the cost of all-weather roads for the value of crops and number of people who would use these roads. There is perhaps a place for more dry-season four-wheel drive tracks extending into the interior.
The other part of the road transportation system is the rolling stock. There are about 200 motor vehicles registered and running on Malekula, with about the same number registered, but not running. Almost all of the vehicles seen on the road are half-ton pickup trucks. Most of these are operated as taxis and transport all of Malekula's smallholder cash crops in small batches. I think that the only effective ones have four-wheel drive, which is necessary for small portions of a large proportion of trips, for example on the dry-seasons roads after a rain, on tracks into plantations and villages, and when fording larger rivers.
The weak link in the rolling stock part of the system is maintenance. There are no professional quality public mechanical workshops on Malekula. In the past, PRV provided this service, but their workshop's business license was withdrawn by the government so that they would not compete with ni-Vanuatu mechanics. The public mechanics that exist now have limited skills. Trucks that need major repairs are often shipped to Santo workshops, or more frequently just abandoned. When a CUSO-sponsored public mechanical workshop was started on Ambae, it put many trucks back on the road again that just needed relatively minor repairs.
There are two forms of public road transportation. Almost every private vehicle on the road is a taxi. Charges are about 70vt per km, and often both ways must be paid on a one-way trip. Over Malekula's relatively long distances, taxis can be quite expensive. A 5,000vt fee, over two week's wages, is not unusual. Taxi pickup trucks are used to transport goods and numbers of people. I once counted 28 people standing on a previously empty road after a taxi truck had unloaded and drove off. Since December, 1986, there have been public buses on Malekula. The first one was brought in and operated by the LGC, and about 5 private ones have followed. The charges are quite reasonable and a 5,000vt taxi trip equivalent can now be made by bus for 400vt. These buses have really improved the quality of life here, allowing people to easily get to the Norsup Hospital, do their business in Lakatoro, or visit friends. Unfortunately, all of the buses except the LGC one concentrate on the Vao-Lakatoro route, which is over-served. Other areas suffer from a lack of bus transport. Bus operators, most of whom are based in the Atchin area, are reluctant to venture far from their home village or to pioneer new markets.
A lot of personal transport is on foot. This is usual for distances of up to, say, 8 km. and necessary for travel to gardens and villages inland away from a road. It is also necessary on the south coast, where there are no roads. There is almost no use of animal power. PRV and Ballands, the two large expatriate copra plantations, use horses to work their cattle, and one or two people use horses for personal transportation. There is no use of cattle to carry copra or other crops. If copra is produced away from a road, it is carried on men's backs to the road or to a beach to be picked up by a ship.
There are several cargo services by sea. The Atchin Star links the east coast with Santo and Vila. Kalpen from Pinalum operates a couple of smaller vessels between Norsup and Santo. PRV operates the Veronica between Norsup and Santo, with some trips to Vila. A couple of Santo-based ships make irregular trips to the west and south coasts. In general, the east coast is fairly well served, with the west and south less so. These ships carry copra and cocoa out of Malekula and bring store goods back, so they are a vital link to the money economies of isolated villages. When they do not come, there is nothing in the stores to buy and no money to buy it with.
Copra and cocoa are shipped to Santo for transshipment to ships to Europe. Cattle from the PRV and Ballands Plantations are shipped to Santo and Vila. Commercial goods enter Vanuatu through Vila and Santo, and then come to Malekula on inter-island ships. Very few passengers, except for large groups on charters to conferences, etc. travel by sea between islands. Ship schedules tend to be very irregular and depend on the location and amount of cargo and the whims of the captain and crew. It is often difficult to determine when a ship will call, as erroneous information is often passed over the Radio Vanuatu Shipping News to confound competing ships that might go to a spot first and carry the copra stored there.
There are few wharfs and jetties on Malekula. A new wharf for inter-island ships has just been completed at Litzlitz, 3 km south of Lakatoro. The Central Government has not shown any interest in arranging for its management though, so it may not be used as effectively as it could be. I think it should be fully integrated into Malekula's transport system and government should facilitate its becoming the hub of Malekula's transport system. There is room on the site for the construction of copra and cocoa docks (storage sheds), and a private businessman could probably lease the facility and make the best use of it. There does not seem to be much chance that the Commercial Centre sited at the wharf will be integrated into the wharf operation, as political factors have decreed that it be run by the Cooperative Department, who are interested only in the sale of retail and wholesale goods.
There is also a good jetty at Port Sandwich Bay and an exposed jetty at Unmet. Jetties at Walarano and Lambubu have been heavily damaged by storms and are not usable. Landing craft-type ships, or "barges" can put in at the beaches at places such as Atchin, Aop or Crab Bay, although they are now tending to use the Litzlitz wharf. At many places, lighters are used to ferry cargo to and from the shore.
There are private taxi boats, open 5 or 6 metre boats with outboard motors, run from various spots along the coast. Like taxi trucks, they tend to be relatively expensive. The Fisheries Department expends some effort resisting more efficient use of private fishing boats, which could be used as taxis when they are not fishing. The Department discourage this because there is no import duty paid on the purchase of fishing boats, equipment, and fuel, and the Department insists that all these duty-free purchases be used for fishing only. It would probably save a lot of trouble and improve the local economy if duty was just paid on these things, and the owners used them as they saw fit.
Finally, there are many outrigger canoes used for personal transportation to and from the small islands off of Malekula's coast. Especially in the Maskelynes area, some of these are quite large and outfitted with sails. There is also some non-commercial fishing carried out from these canoes.
Malekula is very well served by air transport. There are three airstrips, at Norsup, Southwest Bay, and Lamap. Norsup Airstrip is on the main Vila-Santo route, and has several flights a day in and out. Lamap is served on week days, and Southwest Bay three days per week. Norsup is served by a Banderanti, Norsup and Lamap by a Twin-engine Beachcraft, and all three airstrips are served by Twin Otters, Islanders, and Trilanders. A few flights from Norsup go to other central islands, and flights to all islands connect out of Santo and Vila Airports. International flights connect out of Port Vila.
Almost all passenger traffic in and out of Malekula travels by air. There is also quite a bit of small cargo carried. For many items, air cargo transport is comparable in price with sea transport.
There are four means of message communication to and from Malekula: telephone, two-way radio, the Post Office, and air cargo. Telephone service is limited, with only 12 telephones on the island. Six are public telephones located at Atchin, Norsup P.O., Lakatoro LGC, Tisman (run by LGC), Lamap (run by LGC), and Wintua. Therefore, public access to telephones is limited to those who live on Malekula's east coast or in the Southwest Bay area. These public telephones are small offices run by an operator during office hours who charge a fee by the minute for phone calls. Three government offices: the LGC, the Cooperative Department, and the Public Works Department, also have telephones. PRV in Norsup and Metenesel Estates Ltd. in Lambubu have private business telephones. MEL also has a telex machine.
There are three different technologies used to connect these telephones to the Vila exchange, with three different levels of service. The phones in Lakatoro (LGC business and public, Cooperatives, and PWD) are connected by cable to the microwave relay tower at Blackhead (just north of Lakatoro), from where the signals are microwaved to Vila. This gives service almost equivalent to that available in Vila. The MEL and Wintua phones systems each have a small solar-powered VHS relay station located on the hills between them and Vila. This gives good service, except after a couple of cloudy days, when the undersized solar systems run flat and service is interrupted. All of the other phones run off a VHS relay station on Ambrym. Since this station provides only two channels for the surrounding islands, it is often very difficult for these telephones to get a connection to the Vila exchange.
There are also some general limitations to the telephone system. All of the lines to the Vila exchange are connected to phones, so the system is congested, and it is often difficult to get a dial tone during business hours. There are only 12 lines between the Vila and Santo exchanges, so it usually difficult to telephone Santo during business hours. It is often difficult to get an overseas operator. The proposed installation of a new, expanded, digital system should overcome most of these problems.
An unusual, but very serious problem is periodically caused by a custom owner claimant to the land occupied by the telephone microwave repeater station just north of Lakatoro. He occasionally blocks access to the repeater station by displaying a nemele leaf, the traditional ni-Vanuatu sign of "tabu", on the access road. In time, when a small breakdown occurs, maintenance men will not pass the nemele leaf, and the station stops working. This cuts off telephone service to all of Vanuatu from Malekula north. Service is only restored when this man decides, for his own reasons (seemingly in order to call periodic attention to a land ownership dispute on an adjoining piece of land), to remove the leaf.
It would be desirable if, once the proposed digital system is installed, public telephones were installed around the island so that one was within, say, one hour's walk of most of the population. Two government departments that are in Norsup and don't have access to a telephone are the Education Department and the Hospital. These departments, especially the Hospital, would benefit from having telephones.
There are several two-way radios (locally known as "radio telephones") scattered around Malekula. The most extensive network is that run by the Agriculture Department. Besides the base station at the Lakatoro Agriculture Station, there are sets at all of the Agricultural Field Assistants' houses at Lingarak, Lamap, Farun, Wintua, Brenwe, and Tontar. There are other government department radios at the LGC and Fisheries Department in Lakatoro and the Norsup Hospital, PRV, Ballands, and Dixon Reef plantations have inter-island radios, and MEL has an internal network of radios in their trucks and offices. The Catholic Missions at Walarano and Unmet have radios. There are also a few public radios in villages such as Melip and Malfalkhal.
There appears to be a good possibility that the National Development Commission would approve an LGC aid application for radios for the Area Council Headquarters in Walarano, Tontar, Tisman, Lamap, and Wintua. This would greatly increase the administrative efficiency of the LGC, as communications with all of these offices, despite Lamap and Tisman having VHF telephones, is very difficult.
There is some congestion of the airwaves, especially for heavily-used channels such as those used by the airports, but most of the users have assigned channels and time-slots, so all-in-all, the system seems to work fairly well.
It is probable that the proposed digital telephone system will allow phones to be put in all of the places that now have two-way radios. Nevertheless, the radios should remain in order to provide a back-up system when the phones are not working. A likely example of such a time is after a cyclone has hit Vanuatu.
There are central government post offices in Norsup, Lamap, and Wintua. Airmail comes in daily to Norsup and thrice weekly to the other two. Villagers from Norsup north and the west coast south to Wintua must come to Norsup to collect their mail, or wait until a neighbour carries it to them. The Norsup Post Office sends the mail for villages between Lakatoro and Asuk Bay to the LGC Communications Room in Lakatoro, where villagers come to collect it. Hours and even Days of Operation of the Post Offices can be irregular, along with collection and delivery of mail to the airport. Sea mail to the islands, such as Malekula, is very unreliable and not worth considering for serious mail. Ship owners are not paid to carry it, and delivery is extremely irregular. When it arrives at a Post Office, it is given very low priority by the Post Masters because it is primarily made up of free religious magazines from overseas.
For quick, reliable delivery of small parcels and even messages, many people use air cargo. This works especially well for things sent to either Santo or Vila. The minimum fee is 300 vatu for up to 6 kg to Vila. Between the two airlines, several flights per day go to both places.
Malekula's villages are very well served by water supplies, with almost all villages having had one installed by aid donors. Some were built by the French Government before independence, most by the Australian Government before and especially since independence, and a few by expatriate churches, such as the Australian Seventh Day Adventists. There are problems maintaining and extending the French-made systems because the materials they used are not very robust and do not match the size of connectors and pipes available in the Pacific region today.
All the systems built in villages are "Rural Water Supply Systems", which means that communal taps and showers are installed in public areas outside of buildings.
There have been three types of systems built here. Rainwater systems consist of buildings with corrugated iron roofs and steel or ferro-cement catchment tanks. Ni-Vanuatu in general prefer the taste of this water and believe that it is healthier than water from other sources. Expatriate experts consider this source of water to be somewhat less sanitary than the others. The volume from these systems is low, so they provide less water per person per day than the other systems, and no showers are provided.
Gravity-flow systems get their water from a spring or creek uphill from the village. It is usually piped to a storage tank, and from there a pipe runs to the village with its standpipe taps and showers. As almost all dwellings are right on the coast, there are no people living near the sources of these systems, and the water from them is uncontaminated with disease. It does not need treatment.
Pump systems get their water from deep-drilled wells. It is then pumped by a diesel pump to a storage tank, and then runs to the village. These systems provide clean water, as long as sloppy refueling does not lead to diesel contamination of the well (as with the Norsup town water supply), but they are expensive to build and maintain.
Many of these systems, however, are not working, and the villagers have reverted to their traditional water sources of rivers and shallow open wells. This is due to several reasons. Primarily, the villagers perceive these water systems to be something that has been provided by the government, and they think that the government should bear the responsibility of maintaining them. They perceive them as a foreign concept and don't really have any possessive or responsible feelings towards the water systems. Second, preventive maintenance of any type of machinery is not generally effectively carried out by ni-Vanuatu. Historically, they have always used things until they wore out and then discarded them, to be replaced from the bountiful forest or (more recently) aid donors. Third, the villagers generally don't have the expertise, tools, or spare parts to carry out repairs. Finally, it is possible that many villagers don't perceive any difference in quality between water from traditional sources and water from their water supply systems, except that the new water might be less healthy. Lack of cash to pay for maintenance does not appear to be the limiting factor. The LGC offers a fee-for-service maintenance service.
The Australian Rural Water Supply Programme, with British Volunteer Service Overseas expertise, is building water supply of high technical quality. The rain-water and gravity-flow systems generally work well, if they receive regular basic maintenance. The pump systems, however, are doomed from the start. They usually don't get the required maintenance and the moving parts are sure to wear out in due course in any case. Also, communities can't agree on a fee system to purchase fuel. Pump systems are only installed where a gravity-flow water source is not available, but I think that rain water systems are much preferable, even though they provide less water per person. A solar-powered pumping system is planned for Mbwitin, and time will tell if these systems, which are still relatively mechanically complex and require regular investment in new batteries, etc., will be suitable for small applications.
A few villages have hand pump wells, which work, but have the maintenance problems associated with hand pumps the world over. The hand pumps available just don't stand up to sustained use.
Besides the Australian programme, the National Kommunity Development Trust, which administers Non-Governmental Organization aid to Vanuatu, built rain-water catchment tanks for villages until it recently ran out of funds. Most of these tanks are wasted because, unlike the Australians, NKDT does not provide an iron roof (for an adjacent building, to act as a water catchment) with their water tanks. NKDT did not insist that a village build an iron-roofed building before a tank was provided, with the result that Malekula is studded with empty water tanks, often in villages that already have an Australian system, with no iron roof or even building in sight.
Except for two-way radios and VHS telephones, which are powered by solar panels, all of Malekula's non-muscle power is petroleum based. Petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, and lubricants are sold from pumps by the PRV Plantation at Norsup and the Ballands Plantation at Sarmette. They are also sold from 200 litre drums by small stores all over Malekula, as is kerosene for lanterns.
Bottled propane for use in stoves and water heaters is sold by PRV and Kalpen's Store in Norsup, the Consumer's Coop Store in Lakatoro, and the Isicar Denis Store in Atchin. Bulk propane is stored in Santo, and sent to Malekula in small bottles. Malekula's supply is limited by the number of bottles available. Often there is no propane for sale because all of the empty bottles are in Santo being refilled.
Both Lakatoro and Norsup have diesel generator electrical grids. Norsup's is fragmented, with generators being run by the Public Works Department for much of the town, PRV Plantation for its buildings and staff housing, the Hospital, and the School. There are also many privately-owned portable generators scattered around the island that are used for special purposes such as to power video machines for public showings or amplifiers for dances.
A potential hydroelectric site has been identified on the Brenwe River north of Unmet. Feasibility studies have been commissioned by the Ministry of Industry. I have not seen the reports, but I believe that the limiting factor is the size of the market. The market would be Norsup and Lakatoro towns, cocoa dryers at Metenesel Estates Ltd., and a potential sawmill built to process Malekula's timber resources.
Malekula's curative health delivery system consists of four layers: Aid posts are in many small villages and provide basic care such as basic medicines and small wound dressings. They are staffed by Aid Post Nurses, who have received a few week's training. There are 15 Aid Posts on Malekula, with the Central Government Health Ministry providing the medicine. In most cases, the staffing costs are paid by the community, but the LGC pays the salary of the Aid Nurse that serves the Small Nambas community from Melken. Metenesel Estates Ltd. also pays its Aid Nurse. The second level of care is provided by 11 Dispensaries, which employ a trained Nurse. The third level is 6 Health Centres, which have a trained Nurse and 4 patient beds. The top level of care is provided by the Norsup Hospital, which has a Physician heading the staff. Cases that require facilities or expertise that isn't available in Norsup are flown to the Santo or Port Vila Hospital, although planes can only land at the Norsup Airstrip during daylight hours.
There is also a preventative health program. Workers from the Rural Health Department in Norsup tour Malekula by truck and sometimes boat. They provide vaccinations, malaria treatment, and treat health problems. They also provide health and nutrition information.
There is probably some room for the rationalization of Malekula's curative health system, with some Dispensaries downgraded to Aid Posts and the remaining Health Centres and Dispensaries serving somewhat larger areas.
Most communities have a cooperative Kindergarten which is run and paid for by the parents. The Central Government provides free, but not compulsory, education from Grades 1 to 6 in both English and French. Some churches, such as the Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist also run primary schools. Most primary schools have both daily and boarding students, and some villages have no children in them during the school year, as they are all boarding at a school. Secondary school is paid for by the parents, and places are only available to students who come in at the top of national exams held after the Sixth Grade. Malekula has a Junior Secondary School with Grades 7-9 at Rensari, and a French Protestant Junior Secondary School at Orap. Vanuatu's Secondary Schools are located at Vila (one French and two English), Santo (one French and one English), Epi(English), and Ambae (English).
I think there are two aspects of the school system that bear investigation and perhaps change. One, it may be more efficient and socially desirable if small schools where several grades share one room and one teacher are established within easy walking distance of each village. Then all children would be able to live at home, rather than having a large number of them boarding at schools away from home. Two, the number of secondary school graduates should be compared with Vanuatu's demand for people with this educational level, and supply should be matched to demand, by restricting access to secondary education if necessary. This should be done to save money and to avoid the creation of a pool of underemployed, frustrated secondary school graduates.
There are also two Training Centres on Malekula, which provide adult education. Marvin Training Centre is located in Malfakhal, on the south coast. It is operated by the local Presbyterian Church with financial support from the Community Services Department. It's core program is a men's garden-based agriculture course, with an emphasis on practical application of principles in the students' gardens. They would also like to teach carpentry and start a women's program.
The Walarano Training Centre is located at the Catholic Mission at Walarano. Its men's program includes basic mechanics and carpentry. It also runs women's courses.
In the past, there was a third Training Centre at Leviamp, but is closed now due to a dispute over ownership of the land on which it was located.
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©Stan Combs, 1995.