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Malnourishment persists in drought-hit PNG

Tuesday 15 March 2016 | Published in Regional

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PORT MORESY – Water and food shortages remain critical in parts of Papua New Guinea such as Western Province and Milne Bay Province amid a prolonged drought.

The El Niño-linked drought, which began in the middle of last year, appears to finally be over in some parts of PNG, following recent bouts of rain.

However, a specialist in PNG agriculture and food, Mike Bourke, explained that large parts of the south had still not had any significant rain since the drought began.

Dr Bourke, who is an honorary associate professor at the Australian National University, said the drought situation remained bad in Western Province where many remote communities remain malnourished.

“The images that we’re seeing from particularly the Nomad Mogulu area up in the Strickland in the centre of that province, and also down the south of Morehead where Queensland islands, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea meet, they’re very disturbing, frankly, very disturbing images of what’s happening to children and adults.”

Church groups continue to play a leading role in assessment of the drought impacts across PNG.

Dr Bourke, who has been getting drought updates from various church and provincial government figures around the country, said reports from Milne Bay were also grim.

“Most parts of PNG have got better or are getting better, but in Milne Bay the authorities are telling us the drought is getting worse, particularly in the grassland areas north of Alotau, but also in the very small islands where they report eighteen thousand, seven hundred people are still struggling with both water supply and food supply.”

The head of Papua New Guinea’s National Disaster Committee, Dickson Guina, said last week that up to three million people in the country were still affected by the drought.

“But it may increase because the drought effects are still continuing in most areas of the country, in the low coastal areas.”

There was not enough data available yet to give a firm death toll from PNG’s drought at the national level, according to Dr Bourke.

“We do know the death toll has gone up particularly in parts of Western Province, probably in some of the high altitude areas,” he explained.

The various drought updates from around the country are being presented this week by Dr Bourke to government officials as well as some of PNG’s development partners such as the United Nations.

The PNG country director for the UN Development Programme, Roy Trivedy, said last month that many thousands of people remained in stress for lack of adequate food and clean water.

Trivedy warned it would be months before some of these communities could provide for themselves from their own food gardens.

Meanwhile, communities in regions at higher altitudes are still working to build up their staple crops again after last year’s frosts, combined with the drought, devastated many food gardens.

PNG’s disaster management agency has been co-ordinating the official drought response, but the PNG government has not yet asked its main international partner, Australia, for help with delivery of food.

Guina dismissed the suggestion that the government has tried to wash its hands of the drought crisis.

“I think the government has responded positively,” he said, describing an improvement in overall delivery of relief supplies for affected parts, while admitting some gaps in the response.

“In terms of the logistics, the accessibility, some districts have not got relief on time because of those challenges.”

Bourke said that so far, there had been useful food relief efforts in some drought-impacted areas, but very limited relief in other affected parts.

In Western Province, the Ok Tedi Development Foundation has been distributing food relief around some parts of the province with transport help from Australia and New Zealand.

In Milne Bay, the provincial government utilised money made available by central government late last year to distribute relief.

However in both cases, authorities appear to be faced with a big backlog of communities needing urgent relief.

Dr Bourke said help in getting food and water to the was very much still needed.

How long that help would be needed for, he advised, would depend on access to staple foods such as sago, recovery of crops at the higher altitudes, as well as when the rains might come in the far south.

- Radio New Zealand