How do you come up with an urban development plan for a city which consists of tiny islets connected by causeways located in a remote Pacific atoll and subject to flooding on the next king tide?
That's the unique challenge facing Christchurch planner and NZPI member Shifani Sood who is heading to Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) next month to take up a role as an Urban Planning Advisor.
Shifani will be going it alone for the year long Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) assignment, and she is believed to be the first planning volunteer from New Zealand to venture to Kiribati. She is busy raising funds for VSA and her upcoming adventure, which she says will be no holiday in paradise.
"Kiribati is not a tropical island - there will be no lying on beautiful beaches or cocktails by the pool. It will be a choice between boiled water, not cooled, or coconut water to drink in year round average temperature of around 31 degrees Celsius. To add to that, most of the Tarawa Lagoon is not suitable for swimming."
"There are no fruit or vegetables produced there so I have been told to expect a diet of swamp taro, coconut, fish (a lot of tuna), sea cucumber and maybe bananas for one month of the year 'if the boat arrives'."
Kiribati, which has the highest sea to land ratio in the world, is made up of a 32 atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about a four hour flight from Fiji, its closest neighbouring country. It has a combined population of just over 100,000.
Shifani will be based in the capital, South Tarawa, on an atoll about 1km wide, 28km long and 3m high at its highest point. Tarawa is the only part of Kiribati considered 'urban' housing more than half the nation's population with a density of 2,250 people per square kilometre. Most i-Kitibati live in slum like conditions with poor sanitation facilities.
"There are no tourist facilities. There is one road and I'm told that it can take anywhere between three quarters of an hour to an hour and half to travel from end to end. There are two flights a week but most of the time the airstrip is used for partying, drying clothes and driving motorbikes very fast because it is the smoothest road on the island."
Shifani will be working for The Ministry of Environment, Lands and Development helping to ensure the Kiribati capital develops in a structured manner that leads to more efficient use of land areas.
"I took the challenge on because I wanted to see planning from a fresh perspective and be involved in something where I could make a real difference. The key thing will be to leave something in place that the local community can carry on."
Shifani is most looking forward to the geographic and technological isolation with little or no connectivity to the 'outside' world, as well as working with the local community to understand what they want from an urban development plan. She is spending time with Christchurch's Kiribati community in preparation for her journey.
"The people are absolutely lovely and the Kiribati community here has really embraced me and encouraged me. Their nationally loved sport is volleyball which they play tirelessly and I have been honing my skills with them here in Christchurch."
Shifani says a priority will be to learn the local Kiribati language as quickly as possible when she arrives there in September and is looking forward to discovering what impression, if any, the locals have of the planning issues, compared to hers.
NZPI CEO Susan Houston admires Shifani's willingness to take up such an incredible challenge.
"It's great that she is prepared to take her planning skills and apply them to this unique challenge and I am sure the stories she has to tell will inspire other NZPI members around the country," Ms Houston says.
Shifani is volunteering with VSA, which is New Zealand's largest and most experienced volunteer agency working in international development. VSA brings together New Zealanders and our Asia-Pacific neighbours to share their skills and experience, working to transform lives and create a fair future for all.
For more information on VSA please visit www.vsa.org.nz.
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