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As Papua New Guinea faces worsening drought, a past disaster could save lives

Children from a village in Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands Province stand in one of countless sweet potato gardens destroyed by frost across the country, August 2015. Kud Sitango, CC BY-NC-ND

As Papua New Guinea faces worsening drought, a past disaster could save lives

Children from a village in Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands Province stand in one of countless sweet potato gardens destroyed by frost across the country, August 2015. Kud Sitango, CC BY-NC-ND

For more than one million people across rural Papua New Guinea, 1997 was a year that will never be forgotten. Drought and frost caused hundreds of deaths: in some very remote communities, the death rate climbed to seven in 100 people. Crops failed; schools, jails and major mines were forced to close as water supplies ran dry; and there were outbreaks of diseases including diarrhoea, malaria and typhoid.

On Monday, PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill warned that this year and 2016 could be even worse.

A woman with the last remaining well with some water on an island in Milne Bay Province, 1997. Author provided

The official estimate is that more than 1.8 million people across PNG are currently affected by the extended drought and frosts of 2015, which the prime minister’s update said have been “made worse due to the effects of climate change”. Of those, 1.3 million people have been classified as being at the highest risk from drought.

I saw firsthand how bad things got in PNG during that last drought, and I share the PNG government’s concerns – especially because the 2015 drought and frosts started earlier than in 1997, and the impact is already greater than it was at this time in 1997.

If the same proportion of PNG are affected this year as in 1997, then about 2.5 million people could suffer severe food shortages.

I’m flying to Port Moresby this week to help some government and church agencies assess the situation and to share lessons from the past. As PNG’s disaster response ramps up, my hope is that the still vivid memories of 1997 could avert an even bigger crisis in the months ahead.

People on the move as crops fail, water runs dry

The situation in PNG is developing rapidly and every day more reports come in from field workers or the PNG media. Here’s what we know so far.

As of late August 2015, frost has destroyed crops of the staple foods, sweet potato and potato, at many high-altitude locations (above 2200 metres altitude). Tens of thousands of people are reported to be leaving their villages and migrating to lower altitudes to find food.

One of the hardest-hit areas has been Enga province, where frost damage has destroyed many crops and water is scarce. As of a week ago, at least 300,000 people in that province were reported to have been affected.

Children in Morobe Province and other parts of PNG now need to carry water from elsewhere in these bamboo pipes to their school, August 2015. Care International, Author provided

The prime minister’s August 24 update confirmed that schools are being told to reduce operating hours or temporarily close. That follows reports on August 20 from Enga that 15,000 students in 11 different schools had asked for classes to be suspended because of an acute shortage of drinking water. That number could grow to more than 100,000 students in Enga alone within the next fortnight.

Elsewhere, the major hospital at Tari in Hela Province is reported to have run out of drinking water.

Thousands of people rely on this local creek for drinking, but by mid-August 2015 it had already been reduced to this. Bata Mumbe/SIMBU El-Nino Relief Appeal/Facebook

In the nearby Southern Highlands Province, Governor William Powi declared a state of emergency a week ago, as severe frost and drought have destroyed food gardens and reduced water supplies.

It is claimed that more than 500,000 people in that province are affected, with schools closed down as families struggle to survive. Hospitals, homes and business have little or no water for drinking or washing, with many businesses closed.

Similar, but less dramatic reports are coming in from other provinces in the highlands and several lowland provinces. Prices of sweet potato, green vegetables and other foods are reported to be increasing in some markets; water is scarce or unavailable in some smaller towns and government stations; and wild fires have destroyed houses and crops in at least four provinces.

An August 21, 2015, news report on falling water levels at a dam that supplies power to a third of PNG.

Predicting the future from the recent past

The striking thing about the reported situation in late August 2015 compared with the last major drought in PNG in 1997 is that problems are appearing earlier this time.

Repeated frost had impacted people at high-attitude locations by August 1997 and many locations were very dry. But the situation was nowhere as serious nor did it deteriorate as rapidly as appears to be occurring in 2015. Meteorologists’ forecasts of a major El Nino event in 2015-16 appear to be borne out.

Given the experience of the big drought in 1997, and smaller ones in earlier decades (1972 and 1982), what can we expect in coming months?

While predicting the future is fraught, some or all of the following is likely.

There is likely to be a sharp increase in incidence of certain diseases, including diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria, typhoid, skin diseases and respiratory ailments.

Many people will be forced to move from high-altitude locations (above 2200 metres) because of destruction of food crops by frost.

Large populations at lower altitude in the seven highland provinces will be impacted as the drought destroys sweet potato and other food crops. Many people will use their cash reserves or will sell assets, including pig meat, to purchase imported foods.

Even cassava produced only tiny tubers in the 1997 drought. Author provided

Some people on small islands and atolls in maritime provinces, including Milne Bay, Madang, Morobe, West New Britain, Manus and Bougainville, will suffer food shortages and some will be short of good quality drinking water.

The life of many women and girls will become even more difficult as they are forced to walk further to obtain drinking water.

Most people will be able to survive on foods that are not usually eaten in great quantity or are rarely eaten, including green papaya, tiny crabs, coconuts, ferns, fruit of “fig” trees, self-sown yams, the basal parts of banana plants and over-mature cassava tubers in abandoned food gardens.

In the lowlands, the impact is likely to be greatest for those living on small islands and atolls, especially those on remote islands where it is not possible to sell marine foods to those living in urban centres so as to gain cash which can be used to purchase imported rice.

The most vulnerable people are those in remote locations who have very limited cash income, limited or no access to urban markets, limited political influence and generally can only be accessed by air or foot. It was in some such communities that the death rate increased in the 1997 drought.

Many urban people will be impacted by lack of water. By late last week, Port Moresby residents had already been asked to conserve water. Many urban people will also be likely to divert their income to send cash or imported food to their village-based family.

How we can avert a bigger crisis

There are some reasons for optimism today, despite the rapidly worsening situation.

Most adult villagers and others in PNG remember what happened in 1997, unlike a generation ago, when very few people had any memory of the last really big drought and food shortages in 1941.

And the lessons learnt in prior droughts can be applied to reduce the impact on villagers’ lives and minimise the death rate. The PNG government has recently allocated K5 million to commence disaster relief assistance.

An RAAF Caribou aircraft used for assessing impacts of PNG’s drought in 1997. Author provided

The PNG government and other organisations in PNG need to be prepared for what could be a very major disruption to the lives of a high proportion of the population. Development partners, particularly Australia, should also be ready to provide assistance if asked, as they were in 1997.

The challenge ahead for everyone – communities across PNG, the PNG government, development partners including Australia, non-government and faith-based organisations – is to ensure 2015 is not remembered in the same way as 1997.