blog / The drought in PNG

Tue, 16 February, 2016

The drought in PNG

For the past year, much of rural PNG has suffered the effects of a severe El Niño related drought, and repeated frosts at high altitude locations - which destroyed the staple food (sweet potato) and other food crops. Today we’re taking a look at the data on the drought's victims, and what is (and is not) being done by National Government and NGOs to alleviate the crisis for the thousands of people affected.



The authors of ‘Development Policy Centre Policy Brief 11’ examined over 200 reports on the impact of the drought and frosts on food supply in rural PNG. They confirm that in 27 of the 271 rural Local Level Government Areas (LLGAs), food is reported to be  in very or extremely short supply. A number of small islands in Milne Bay Province are also affected by severe food shortages.

Based on a 2015 population estimate extrapolated from the 2000 census, the number of villagers living in LLGAs where severe food shortages are reported is about 770,000. Of these, an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people are in the greatest need. The monetary cost of rendering assistance to them, however, is high, thanks to the remoteness of the locations most in need (transportation costs greatly exceed the cost of the food itself).

The greatest food shortages are occurring in four ecological zones:

1. Very high altitude (over 2200 m) in parts of four highland provinces

2. A number of locations in the central highlands or fringe of the highlands

3. Interior lowland locations in Western Province

4. Many small and remote islands in Milne Bay Province.

Dev Policy Blog asserts that although the rainfall many areas experienced in November eased the water supply situation, access to clean drinking water remains a challenge for villagers in a number of locations in the far south of PNG - most notably, southern and central Western Province, and on small islands in Milne Bay Province. 

The rainfall has enabled many villagers (including in the Central Highlands) to attempt to re-plant food gardens, and has nourished fast maturing green vegetables - which are starting to become available. Nonetheless, food scarcity remains a serious issue for a number of locations: 

- very high altitude locations (over 2200 m altitude). Here, all food crops were destroyed by repeated frosts in July to September

- many remote locations in inland Western Province. Here, lack of water prevents people from processing sago, and food gardens are not producing 

- a number of remote areas on the fringe of the central highlands, like inland Gulf Province

For other places where villagers are waiting for newly planted food crops to mature, carbohydrate staples like sweet potato and banana are scarce. Villagers working exceedingly hard to re-establish food gardens whilst also suffering carbohydrate food shortages are in danger, as their health is compromised by a reduction in resistance to disease.

Michael Bourke, Bryant Allen and Michael Lowe, the authors of ‘Development Policy Centre Policy Brief 11’ , predicted a “sharp increase in the death rate in a limited number of very isolated locations as the rain returns and the recovery begins”.



“The rain may change the focus of people’s needs but the response that we are providing is as important as ever”, wrote CARE Australia’s Paul Kelly on February 2. He was referring to recent rains in Goroka, which he had just visited to oversee the ongoing relief operations of his organinsation. 

Despite this welcome rain in some (not all) drought affected areas, and the consequent refilling of creeks and rivers, high levels of sediment and contaminants washed from exposed soil have compromised the water quality in those areas. This means that villagers still need to collect and store water, and necessitates the supply of purification tablets (to help people avoid diarrhoea and waterborne diseases), and health and hygiene promotion.

Furthermore, World Vision PNG response manager Bonie Belonio, trying to coordinate emergency aid to communities affected by serious (and sometimes fatal) landslides and flooding, told Radio NZ: "We are completing the assessment stage and moving into a distribution of water containers, water purification tablets because I think that is what is needed at this point in time and then do a quick awareness raising and education to really ensure that the water that they drink are purified and treated."

CARE Australia’s Paul Kelly estimated that it will take four to six months for people to re-establish crops that can feed themselves and their families. Food delivery will be necessary for some time to come. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has claimed National Government responsibility for providing food, primarily through the District Services Improvement Program (DSIP); because of this commitment, the Australian Government funding towards alleviating the crisis does not include support for food.

This has left many of the drought victims hungry, as they say the National Government has not delivered. Back in October the deputy-secretary of the PNG Prime Minister's department, Trevor Meauri, was forced to defend the government, saying that it had spent almost 13 million Kina ($7 million) on relief supplies and deliveries to the worst-affected areas. Meauri said efforts were slow because of the challenging topography and need to plan carefully in order to ensure a fair distribution.



Yet Radio NZ reported in late January that despite the PNG government’s claims it has started providing food aid, frontline workers say that much of that aid is frustratingly stuck in provincial warehouses, with no budget to distribute these essential supplies to alleviate the famine. They spoke to Solokai Fataiyai, who told them: "They are promising us to assist us but, at the moment, we have not received any assistance, almost from last year, middle of the year. At the moment, we have got 15 people already have passed away because of hunger."

Solokai said people were losing hope of ever getting help from the national government. And Michael Bourke, specialist in Papua New Guinea agriculture and food (and one of the authors of  ‘Development Policy Centre Policy Brief 11’) said that due to local authorities lacking resources to deliver aid to those in need, hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing what Solokai’s community is.

Members of Parliament have also criticised and expressed concern about the governments non-delivery on its promises of food aid. Radio NZ broadcast MP Sam Basil is dismayed by “a lack of co-ordination in national drought relief assistance efforts” and the non-delivery of pledged funds:

“I think the national disaster services, under the national government, should have taken control of the situation. But I think the provinces are doing their little bit, and each district is doing its little bit. Sometimes we find that we're doing the same things, putting relief supplies into the same village and I think there is no proper co-ordination between the national government, the provincial government and the district."

And former PNG Attorney-General/current Highlands MP Kerenga Kua convinced his district administration last year to divert its road projects funding towards buying and distributing food relief - in October, 2 million kina ($957,258) had been spent by his province on rice, flour and cooking oil for more than 14,000 families. It took 13 days for the food to be delivered to villages in the rugged and mountainous district.

Perhaps most alarming has been the National Goverment’s reticence regarding assistance from international donor partners and humanitarian organisations. It was reported that frontline disaster relief workers in PNG have actually been pleading with the national government to allow foreign help in. Mathew Kanua, drought relief director for uni-faith organisation Church Partnership Program, told Radio NZ:

"They do this thing all over the world. They can come and help and plan the logistics and transport together with the government, and budget these things, and invite the participation of the private sector and we can move this along very quickly.

"But the government has not clearly stated what role these people play - and, if any."



After his recent trip to PNG to survey the effects of the drought, Michael Bourke reported:

"Adults are dying who don't normally die - people in their 20s and 30s, there is clearly an increase in death rate amongst very small children. So we don't have really hard data, we don't have lots of good demographic data but the [photographic] evidence coming in is credible. It may not be tens of thousands of people overall but, for the groups and communities involved, it is a huge tragedy."

The photos here were supplied by Sally Lloyd, a daughter of Australian missionaries who grew up in Mougulu, Western Province; she regularly travels to Mougulu from Brisbane to visit the villagers, her ‘sisters’. Sally recently told the ABC of what she saw at a small community health sub-centre in Mougulu: the devastating consequences of the drought for children and expectant mothers. 

While Sally was helping out at the clinic, one emaciated mother, Margaret Hagobai (Image 5 & 7), gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy; the girl child died of malnutrition. Margeret had walked for two days with her malnourished toddler (Image 6) - the twins’ elder brother - to get to the clinic, and actually went into labour on the way. She was too sick to see her baby daughter buried, and had to be shown photographs of the burial. 

She shared with Radio NZ this shocking scene (Image 4):

"A little boy came in one day, or his father carried him in one day. He had fainted and he was really dehydrated, malnourished, very, very hungry and and he had fainted and then become unconscious.

"They had really nothing to give him and he was too flat to even get a drip into him. So we just tried to rehydrate him a little bit and things like that. So that sort of thing, to see little children in that state because they have not had adequate food, is quite heart-wrenching."

Sally’s photographic evidence of drought victims - which she presented to officials at a recent drought meeting in Port Moresby - has sparked a probe by the Prime Minister's Office. The Government has had to admit that some remote areas have received no relief since the middle of 2015, when the effects of the drought were first observed.


The El Niño influenced drought is forecast to continue throughout 2016.


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.

Photo 3 credited to Pastor Tony Mabo.

All other photos supplied by Sally Lloyd//Drought Supplies for remote areas PNG.


Further reading:

‘PNG's food bowl is all but empty as drought affects 2 million people’


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