The broken penny-box
It’s Saturday, we must be in Zanzibar

Over two million Papua New Guineans suffering drought crisis

DroughtCATHERINE WILSON | Inter Press Service
Edited extracts

AN estimated one-third of the population of Papua New Guinea is now suffering in from the country’s worst drought this century and experts predict El Nino’s influence will carry on until March next year.

Dickson Guina, chairman of the National Disaster Committee, told IPS that 2.4 million people across most of the nation’s 22 provinces are confronting a critical lack of food and water.

There are also reports of many schools and hospitals forced to close as water shortages disrupt their operations.

“Our most urgent issue is water. We don’t have a river close by which we can use, so we depend on rain for drinking. But there is only one water tank for every 10 households, which is not enough,” Mangab Selau, a local Goroka resident said.

“We are now drinking well water, which is not safe for our children,” another villager, Hilda Jerome, added.

More than 80% per cent of PNG’s 7.3 million people live in rural areas and rely on subsistence agriculture for their food needs. But since the dry season began in May, rivers and rain water catchments have dried up, while staple crops, such as sweet potato and taro, have perished in the arid conditions.

The highlands region where 40% of people live, is the worst affected with further devastation of village food gardens by frost in areas of higher altitude such as Enga Province.

The government initially granted K25 million kina for disaster relief, but is now providing K2 million kina to every district to be used for drought assistance, amounting to a total of K178 million kina for the country’s 89 districts, the National Disaster Committee confirmed.

At the Kudjip Nazarene mission hospital in Mt Hagen, Dr Scott Dooley told IPS of spreading waterborne illnesses.

“Many small rivers are dried up and when passing by a larger river it is always very crowded with people. There is now more contamination of these water sources and, as many people do not boil or treat their water, this has led to more gastro-intestinal illnesses,” he said.

Many other health facilities in the area have had to close for periods due to lack of water, including the only two hospitals in neighbouring Simbu Province, Dr Dooley added.

Between now and the first quarter of 2016, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warns that repercussions of the current drought are likely to intensify, placing 4.7 million people at risk in 11 South Pacific countries.

In Papua New Guinea, traditional coping mechanisms will be vital to averting the escalation of hunger during the next five months.

Mutual social and cultural obligations between members of Melanesian clans and extended families which have, for generations, provided a supportive safety net for those enduring hardship and deprivation, will be no less important now, particularly in rural and remote areas.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Bruce Gledhill

Catherine, From my Townsville base and for the last 12 months I've been researching the challenges, options and opportunities for alternative electricity generation and distribution in rural/remote PNG.

The drought has been reported as a looming concern for most of that time.

At first the dropping dam levels were said to be contributing to electricity supply failures. More recently the low water levels have prompted warnings about the prospect of potable water shortages in Moresby.

In terms of drought response media reports seem to be mostly on the distribution of money for food purchases consequent to crop failures and, to a lesser extent, the distribution of food.

There has been no commentary on emergency water distribution nor mention of any effort, or plans, to harvest or store water not on any scale.

The immediate requirement seems to be water transport; on a huge scale to multiple distribution points. I am suggesting this for domestic consumption, to permit reopening of hospitals and to enable food crops to be replanted and sustained.

This situation should be addressed now and probably would be best effected by PNGs close and water-rich neighbours Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

The UN suggests that each person needs a minimum of 20 litres per day for consumption, hygiene and sanitation. This presumes more infrastructure than is available in most of PNG. In a crisis we might assume 10 litres as a reasonable target. Even assuming PNG has half that secured we need to maintain focus on re-establishing food production.

Presently at least 2 million people are at risk in PNG, to avert a disaster the country needs 20,000 tonnes of safe fresh water delivered and distributed - every day.

I recall New Zealand exporting shiploads of water (50,000 tonnes/vessel) to SE Asia some years ago; from an enormous freshwater spring that was offshore west of Fiordland.

Regardless of the source, only in this way can the disaster management response deliver correctly targeted supplies. Once water is shipped to the many ports around the PNG coast there are flexible tanks that can be transported on flat deck trucks and in shipping containers - local distribution of that volume can be quickly implemented.

Even if roads are marginal there are plenty of 6x6 all Terrain Dumptrucks lying idle in Australia right now.

As a medium term strategy I refer to the relative ease of damming of creeks and rivers and to harvesting from rooftops into on-site tanks. This is something the hundreds of unemployed mining engineers in Australia could be engaged to deliver.

Our nations could unite to get a lot of water to a lot of communities. If on-site tanks were also deployed then the solution is delivered. Those same tanks can be used for water harvesting when it next rains and would become Plan B for the next El Nino.

Granted where remote communities do not have road access the options are limited; helicopters or relocation might be the only options.

What seems to be lacking is a sense of urgency.
The last paragraph of your report suggesting 'traditional coping mechanisms will be vital to avert the escalation of hunger' is wrong.

Hpwever strong and precious the Wan-Tok system is it will not cope with or resolve this situation. This nation needs our humanitarian assistance now.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)