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PNG drought crisis worsening

Tuesday 1 September 2015 | Published in Regional


PORT MORESBY – Drought and frosts have wiped out subsistence crops in Papua New Guinea’s highland areas, where villagers are facing months without food if they do not receive help.

Enga province administrator Samson Amean said recent frosts in his province were the worst in 40 years, with more than 300,000 people affected.

The country has also been battling its worst drought in 18 years almost simultaneously.

The PNG government has pledged to provide emergency relief funds to affected areas, but was warned the situation on the ground could get worse.

Hundreds of people died when PNG faced similar drought and frost conditions in 1997. In very remote areas, experts have said the death rate was as high as seven per cent.

PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill has said the current crisis could be even worse.

More than 1.8 million Papua New Guineans have been affected by the recent extreme weather, according to O’Neill, with more than 1.3 million of those in the “most at risk” category.

In PNG’s highlands, where many people rely on their own crops for food, there have been severe water shortages and reports of food garden thefts.

Blossum Gilmour, assistant country director of CARE International in PNG, said she hoped communities would band together rather than turn on each other.

The drought has also seen the mighty Fly River dry up, leading to the closure in late August of the country’s Ok Tedi gold and copper mine, which in the 2000s provided more than 25 per cent of the nation’s export earnings.

The dry, cold weather conditions are expected to continue throughout this year’s El Niño event, according to PNG national weather service director Sam Mahia.

Bible Faith Outreach, a charity group that looks after orphans in Mount Hagen and the Western Highlands, called on the PNG government to scrap its 40th anniversary celebrations and instead focus on solving the food crisis.

Its director, Rosa Kepo, said the cash set aside for the anniversary should go to victims of the food crisis instead.

Aid organisations are concerned water shortages could lead to an increase in cases of typhoid fever, which is already prevalent in some communities such as the Eastern Highlands.

There are also concerns the lack of food could lead to social problems, including theft.

The United Nations has also warned the drought crisis could aggravate the problem of sorcery-related violence in Papua New Guinea.

The Papua New Guinean government has been criticised for its response to the crisis.

Oro province governor Gary Juffa said Port Moresby had not made an effort to ensure the nation was prepared for such an event.

He said his province is one of the few with a local disaster management plan.

Meanwhile, the country’s National Agricultural Research Institute said it was knocked back by the government when applying for funding to develop strategies to respond to drought after a warning was issued.

In an interview with the ABC, O’Neill hit back at criticism about the government’s response.

He said he had personally visited drought-hit areas like Tambul and Mendi to assess the progress of aid distribution.

“We released quite a substantial amount of funding which immediately brought some food supplies into many of these areas,” he said.

“The supplies have already started reaching many of the communities and we are working closely with the district CEOs who are taking charge of the distribution to the most-affected families.”