EVERY year on 11 July is World Population Day. This year it marked the recognition of vulnerable populations in an emergency context.
A population affected by emergencies - wars, natural disasters or social problems - faces higher risks of disease, violence, hunger and homelessness, the devastating effects of which lead to a shift from normal lives to challenging conditions.
Vulnerability can also come about as a natural and unavoidable part of life or it can be created and sustained by social arrangements.
The majority of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas and spend most of their time involved in subsistence gardening or fishing or other economic activities to sustain their livelihoods.
They have access to safe drinking water, food and a place to sleep. But this way of life changes drastically when a natural disaster occurs and what is normal is no longer there to sustain their existence.
PNG is situated along a volatile seismic band known as the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ which makes it susceptible to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis.
Other disasters include droughts, floods, landslides, tropical cyclones and king tides. When natural disasters occur, sometimes affected communities adapt to the conditions but in other cases life is never the same. These are the vulnerable populations in emergency situations.
In PNG’s history, one of the worst natural disasters occurred on 17 July 1998 when a tsunami struck near Aitape in the West Sepik Province and proved to be one of the deadliest on record. The tsunami devastated the villages of Sisano, Warupu, Arop and Malol and more than 2,000 people lost their lives.
The 10,000 people who were affected and survived were clearly vulnerable. While many moved on with their lives, others had to make the bold decision to move.
Tavurvur and Manam are PNG’s most active volcanoes. Mount Tavurvur, erupted in 2014 and also recorded eruptions in 2013, 2011, 2010, 2006, 2005 and 2002. The most notable eruption occurred in 1994 and affected many people living in East New Britain.
It was a devastating time in which people lost their homes and food gardens and had no access to safe drinking water. Evacuation programs were implemented which assisted people recover and make new homes away from their traditional villages.
At first, there was resistance to moving to new areas. Nevertheless, people eventually accepted that they needed to move to a place where basic services like water and sewerage were available. These incentives motivated people to rebuild their lives.
Manam Island in Madang Province experienced similar devastation in 2004 when its volcano erupted. The Manam islanders’ situation was far from being a success story. Almost 10,000 residents were evacuated to care centres on the mainland where they have now been living for over nine years.
Many social issues have also emerged as they struggle to live their lives – an example of a vulnerable population.
The natural disasters experienced in PNG mostly occur unexpectedly and nearly all have devastating effects.
Analysing past experiences with natural disasters is essential in supporting programs required for addressing issues faced by the vulnerable populations such as shortage of food and water and lack of shelter.
When PNG responds to these vulnerable populations in emergency situations, it will show that we have a society that is responsive to the needs of all and a society where no one will be neglected.