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.