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24 dead from drought causes

Thursday 24 September 2015 | Published in Regional


CANBERRA – An Australian senate inquiry into Canberra’s aid programme in Papua New Guinea has been told the government should be ready to help the country deal with the effects of a growing drought disaster.

The Provincial Disaster Centre of Chimbu Province has reported 24 people “confirmed dead” as a result of prolonged drought in the interior Highlands region.

The chief executive of humanitarian aid agency CARE Australia, Julia Hewton-Howes, says it is closely monitoring the drought situation impacting on the Highlands provinces.

She says CARE is concerned about people’s access to food.

“We think that it will be important, despite the government of Papua New Guinea not yet requesting external assistance, that Australia monitors the situation and is ready to help.

“We know that people died of starvation in the 1997-1998 drought and that Australian assistance was important, but there are lessons to be learned.”

Julia Hewton-Howes says for a successful response, Australia must work out how to best get aid out to remote communities.

This comes two weeks after the provincial disaster coordinator in Chimbu province, Michael Ire Appa, told Radio New Zealand International of at least 24 deaths in his province, due to a lack of food and poisoned water.

And in late August, a specialist in Papua New Guinea agriculture and food said the droughts and frosts in the Highland provinces in particular have destroyed many of the country’s essential food sources.

Mike Bourke said the drought would place a range of great strains on many communities.

“The biggest single thing is that many hundreds of thousands of people, households, are scavenging for food, eating food that they normally wouldn’t eat.

“So people are eating unusual food, or they’re eating things in quantities that they normally wouldn’t eat. So, tremendously disruptive, tremendously stressful.”

He said there are a range of other areas where the strain of the drought is severe, such as access to water, health and migration.

There are reports from Enga Province that 10 people there have died of starvation due to the drought and frost disaster.

Ezekiel Peter, the general secretary of the PNG Gutnius Lutheran Church, says eight people have died in Ipul, Wert and Last Wert this week and two have died in the Andakoe area from starvation related sickness.

Peter says excuses about travelling allowances, fuel and accommodation by public servants in Wabag is undermining operational efficiency, and political infighting is delaying the food getting to the people.

He says people are very upset and angry, and he fears this could lead to rioting, as happened in the 1997 drought.

The Enga Province (300,000 population) is experiencing the worst frost in 40 years.

Bush fires are also reported in some areas.

The Highlands region of the country are agriculturally rich and normally the biggest suppliers of fresh vegetables.

The loss of produce is already being felt in urban areas which rely on supplies from the highlands farms. Shortages of sweet potato have been reported in Lae.

Apart from the loss of food crops, the drought also impacted the hospital operations in Kundiawa of Chimbu Province and the Ok Tedi mine operation along the Fly River of Western Province.

Populations in affected areas are resorting to secondary water sources – traditionally used for washing and bathing – as drinking water and in food preparation. This increases the risk of diarrhoea and typhoid already prevalent in PNG.