Super-charged El Niño brings Papua New Guinea’s worst drought in 20 years

In the field, Food & climate change article written on the 16 Dec 2015

Staff from Oxfam and partner organisations distributing emergency kits in Womkama, PNG.

Papua New Guinea is experiencing its worst drought since the devastating 1997 crisis that caused food shortages, disease and loss of life.

The South Pacific Islands’ largest nation already faces a huge range of complex development challenges. This year’s drought and severe frosts — caused by a ‘super El Niño’ climate event — are making the situation much worse.

Following record high temperatures last year, 2015 has seen below average rainfall and an increase in frosts and temperatures. An estimated 3 million people, including 1.9 million living in the Highlands, could be affected.

In focus: the Highlands of Papua New Guinea
  • The Highlands regions are dominated by steep, mountainous terrain. Communities living here are incredibly isolated and access is difficult. As a result, contact with the authorities is limited.
  • The dry weather and frost are destroying crops, leaving people here with little to eat and no way of earning a living. Instead they must rely on wild foods as they can no longer afford to buy food.
  • Water sources are disappearing. Streams, rivers and water tanks are drying up. Some schools have closed due to a lack of water and there are reported outbreaks of illness and disease, from diarrhoea to malnutrition
Crops are failing

The staple crop of the Highlands region is kaukau and is similar to sweet potato or kumara. But the supply has been decimated; the lack of rain has caused roots to wither and plants to dry out, and when it does rain, there is no relief; water gets trapped in the holes burrowed by weevils, causing the tubers to rot.

Searching through the soil for edible kaukau has become a lost cause — in a number of cases farmers have abandoned their kaukau gardens altogether.

Malnutrition on the rise

For many, mealtime now consists of a few small pieces of boiled vegetables or wild foods once a day. The situation is so dire, women are skipping meals so their children can eat.

In the village of Tugumpaso, local Oxfam staff have identified three cases of infant malnutrition. Smiley Jacob, mother of Grace Jacob (9 and a half months) said the drought has destroyed her garden leaving her with nothing to feed her child. Grace is severely underweight with her upper arm measuring just 11 centimetres, 4–5 centimetres less than it should be for a child of her age.

Oxfam staff have supervised Smiley and Grace’s visits to the local health centre and will continue to monitor local villages to assess the scale of the problem.

But Smiley feels there is little hope.

“When she was five months I realised she began to lose weight. I went to the local pastor to pray for her. It was all I could do. We have very little food,” said Smiley.

The lack of water is also a major threat to the people living in the community. Water tanks installed by Oxfam are capable of holding 9000 litres of rainwater, but only have enough water to last one week. Creeks and streams have been reduced to a trickle. Rivers have become increasingly dirty as people turn to them for washing — they are no longer suitable for drinking and carry the significant risk of transmitting water-borne diseases.

A long-term response

Oxfam has been working in Papua New Guinea since 1991. We have deep, enduring relationships with many of the communities.

In addition to our long-term community development work, we are helping communities to adapt to the shifting climate. This includes improving existing water supply and storage systems and providing farmers with training and support to maintain their gardens through drought conditions.

We’re also distributing jerry cans and soap — essential for the prevention of the spread of diseases — and information that will make a big difference in helping people to cope with the dry season. Women in Womkama, in the shadow of Mt Wilhelm, wept with joy as they received these resources.

We are identifying families at risk, providing communities with essential information on keeping healthy, water conservation and adapting their farming to the dry weather.

We need to continue helping people throughout this drought and future dry seasons when their crops are failing and food resources are dwindling every day.

But in the face of increasing climatic disruption and uncertainty — including due to climate change — we also need firm climate action. As the planet heats up, the situation in places like Papua New Guinea is only going to get worse. Worryingly, recent research suggests that climate change increases the odds of these particularly strong El Niño events occurring.

“The time for just talk is passing by”

In early December, Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill called for governments at the climate change negotiations in Paris to save lives and protect Pacific communities that are ‘running out of time’.

It is encouraging to see Pacific solidarity and strong words coming from Papua New Guinea. Governments across the world must heed this call for action, they must wake up to the fact that climate change is already happening. Communities here are struggling to adapt to extreme weather. Beyond the agreement reached in Paris, we need far greater long-term support to vulnerable countries with in the Pacific to adapt to the impacts of greater climate disruption and food insecurity.

The ultimate humanitarian impacts of El Niño depends on the urgency of the response now. Please donate to the International Crisis Fund today.

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