IN Papua New Guinea, the rains have come and the drought is over, but the country remains in the grip of crisis.
It is estimated about two million people are affected by a lack of food and clean water.
Typhoid and skin diseases are rife, malnutrition is on the rise, while in remote areas schools and medical centres have been shut down because there is no clean water.
Drought and frosts have wiped out subsistence crops in PNG’s highlands, where villagers are facing months without food if they do not receive help.
Enga province administrator Dr Samson Amean said the frosts in his province were the worst in 40 years, with more than 300,000 people affected.
The country has been battling its worst drought in 18 years almost simultaneously.
In 1997 hundreds of people died when PNG faced similar drought and frost conditions.
In remote areas, experts said the death rate was as high as seven per cent.
Mt Hagen’s Brisbane-born Archbishop Douglas Young described the situation as dire with thousands of highland people in distress as their food gardens were destroyed, and now floods were having an impact.
“First it was frost and drought, now heavy rain and flooding,” he said.
“It’s one extreme to another.
“Across the archdiocese, most of my people are short of sweet potato so they are short of their staple.
“In the high risk, high altitude areas it will be months before the next crop comes on line.”
About one million people live in PNG’s rugged highlands.
Many people live in isolated villages with no means of transport in or out. This is also the case in border areas like the vast Western Province.
“The real issue is whether people have roads. It is the remote areas that don’t participate in the cash economy they are most affected,” Archbishop Young said.
“If they are able to market other crops, they are able to get money and buy the food they need.”
Archbishop Young said getting emergency food to remote villages was slow, and government distribution attempts were “not very successful”.
“The Government is stuck with bureaucrats,” he said.
“We were able to use our parish structure – people on the ground everywhere, volunteers and service providers.
“But sometimes the logistics overwhelm everybody. The cost of transport is twice as much as the food itself.”
Archbishop Young was aware of one food riot in the remote highland town of Tambul.
“Food was stored in containers, and people got impatient and broke in to the containers,” he said
In a report released by the Development Policy Centre, Care Australia’s Paul Kelly wrote: “People here are used to hardship, but this has not been a usual year. By September 2015 water sources had dried up and crops and home gardens had been destroyed or failed. Families are currently surviving on one meal a day, and even then, many mothers will miss meals so their children can eat.”
Mercy Works executive director Sister Ailsa Mackinnon, has returned from PNG with some grim predictions about the country’s recovery.
“It will take three to six months for the sweet potatoes to grow,” she said
“The problem is that the crops planted now will be full of weevils. People are being encouraged to pull out and replant. And that’s hard for them.”
Mercy Works is active in the remote settlement of Kiunga in Western Province.
“The Bishop there asked us to help him out. He needed medicines for malaria and snake bites,” Sr Mackinnon said.
“With the water level dropping snakes were coming out to find water.”
Mercy Works contributed $25,000, with some of that money to be spent buying bucket water purifiers.
Church agencies have been active raising money in Australia.
In partnership with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Caritas Australia is primed for a major distribution of food packages, which include tins of tuna, rice, flour and cooking oil – a selection based on international minimum standards.
The aim is to reach 96,000 of the most vulnerable village people in the Highlands and Western Province.
The PNG Government has been criticised for its response to the crisis, especially when record hot conditions, the result of a giant El Nino, were predicted across the Pacific.
Provincial governors have complained that many regions lack local disaster management plans.
Bible Faith Outreach, a charity group that cares for orphans in Mount Hagen and the Wester Highlands, called on the PNG Government to scrap plans for its 40th anniversary celebrations and use funds set aside for the event to provide for victims of the food crisis.
The drought is also having a crippling effect on key PNG industries.
In August last year the Fly River dried up, leading to the closure of the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine, which in the 2000s provided more than 25 per cent of PNG’s export earnings.
By Mark Bowling