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‘Prepare for the worst’

Wednesday 16 September 2015 | Published in Regional


United Nations urges Pacific governments to prepare for El Niño’s impact

PACIFIC – The United Nations is calling on Pacific governments to prepare for what could be the worst El Niño system to impact on the region.

The UN resident coordinator in Fiji, Osnat Lubrani, said it is expected to rival the 1997 El Niño which is the most severe on record.

Lubrani said drought problems currently being experienced around parts of the region are just the beginning.

She said governments need to start raising awareness in communities and preparing national emergency plans.

“It’s also important, for example, for communities to think about what happens if a drought hits. How do you make special arrangements for schools to be kept open if there are water shortages.”

“At the National level, there’s also the importance of preparing drought plans and certainly governments are already working on that but I think there’s always more that can be done.”

Lubrani says the extreme drought and frost in Papua New Guinea could be a foreshadow of what’s to come around the region.

The PNG Highlands area has been experiencing severe frosts and the worst drought in at least eighteen years.

“I think that what we see already in PNG –and there are also official drought warnings in Fiji and worries about water problems in Solomon Islands – shows that there could be more problems to come.”

“And it’s not just drought, it’s also cyclones that are associated with this phenomenon.”

American Samoa’s Power Authority says if the dry spell continues it will ask the Governor to declare a state of emergency.

The Authority’s executive director, Utu Abe Malae, says the community must conserve water and prepare for an impending drought.

Utu says higher levels of salt are being detected in water wells, as a result of sea water intrusion as freshwater is used up.

It’s anticipated that October will be one of the driest months, and the spell could continue well into 2016.

In neighbouring Western Samoa, the dry weather has forced the water authority to start rationing the resource to some areas in the north of Upolu island.

The Samoa Water Authority has also told the public not to use the treated water supply for gardening and washing cars.

The acting CEO of the Met Service, Mulipola Ausetalia Titimaea, says water security is essential, even though the El Niño weather pattern is tipped to affect Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu more than Samoa.

The Tonga National Emergency Management Office is urging people to prepare for more severe drought, which it says could soon turn into a crisis.

Tonga has had extremely dry weather for nearly a year and people have been warned to prepare for worse to come.

The Marshall Islands is on alert for what authorities there say could be the worst drought for more than a decade.

Fiji is also feeling the effects of drought, with farmers losing crops and water supplies drying out.

In Papua New Guinea, disaster authorities in the Highlands fear there could a major humanitarian emergency as droughts and frosts continue to wipe out food gardens.

The UN’s Lubrani said some countries are already implementing or drafting drought plans and the UN is ready to help co-ordinate this and to provide technical advice.

Over the coming months, countries on the equator can expect more rain, flooding and higher sea levels, presenting challenges for low-lying atolls already feeling the impacts of climate change.

Lubrani says the more populous countries of the Pacific south west will see conditions get drier from now – although some are already in the grip of severe drought.

She says El Niño years characteristically feature a longer cyclone season, with more intense cyclones affecting a wider portion of the Pacific.

The Pacific’s head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Sune Gudnitz, says as many as 4.1 million people are at risk from water shortages, food insecurity and disease.