Floods and Landslides Follow drought in PNG Highlands

“Mama, I am hungry and thirsty; I want some water.”

“My child, go to bed and dream of water. Tomorrow when you wake up it will be there”.

These magical words were repeated by mothers each night at bedtime across the drought-stricken Papua New Guinean Highlands, recalls IOMs’ Michael Kieren McGovern.

The whole region, and especially Jiwaka Province, has been hit by severe drought caused by El Niño for a year already. Women wake up very early in the morning to look for water. They walk exhausting distances to fetch water, using small empty discarded soft-drink bottles found in the garbage. Their hunt for water may last for hours, while their children dream of quenching their thirst.                                                                                       

Almost every household has had a family member who has been sick in the last month, and half of all the households surveyed have had somebody die because of lack of water. Exact figures are difficult to verify due to the remoteness of the communities and the fact that household surveys don’t always include members of the extended family living in the same place. Apart from the devastation that losing a member caused to the family, the deaths have had an even greater impact on the close knit communities. It’s estimated that at least 40 people have died in Jiwaka alone.

The drought has affected individuals in many ways, translating into very little food available for consumption. Despite slowly recovering from the worst drought in half a century, food security remains a concern in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Vegetables have been planted, but less than normal due to the lack of seeds. Staple tuber crops like sweet potato and cassava have had a very low yield as a result of the heavy rains. Clear water has been difficult to find because of erosion and mud.

Jiwaka has limited capacity to respond to disasters. IOM established a sub-office in partnership with the Provincial Government in November 2015 to identify and respond to the worst drought affected communities in the Highlands.

The lack of water during the dry season impacted the communities greatly causing an increase in illnesses, malnutrition, and food insecurity. By developing the community’s capacity to cope with natural disasters through the five new boreholes which access fresh water, IOM has provided a source of sustainable water. This has also happened by training community trainers in basic principles of water and hygiene. Additionally, IOM is distributing kits consisting of 20-litre water containers and two bars of soap per household.

Community members have been trained in conservation agriculture techniques aiming to use drought resistant crops. The training was completed at the end of February 2016 and has already showed results through the province, where farmers are changing their farming methods and crop type. They are using their newly acquired knowledge to store food (such as cassava) for human and livestock consumption.

As of March 2016, the direct beneficiaries of non-food items have been 2000, and 600 for agricultural assistance. In Jiwaka, as part of the Train the Trainers Program, the 30 farmers who had been trained have trained others, impacting 10,000 households, with an immediate improvement in the sanitation and cleanliness of communities.

It is estimated that the region will take more than a year to recover from the drought. Current crops have had low yields, so the next crops to be planted will be imported. In the meantime, people are eating whatever they can to survive. Technically, the Highlands are in recovery mode, but the reality is that people are eating only once a day and usually food such as corn, which is not exactly nutritious. Additionally, the past problems created by the lack of water are now compounded by an abundance of water across the Highlands, with heavy rains causing flooding and mudslides.

IOM has also responded to these recent disasters affecting the Highlands region. In Jiwaka the Wagi valley has flooded and numerous landslides have occurred because of heavy rains. It is estimated that five thousand households are affected by flooding or landslides. One of the biggest concerns remains food security. Crops that can take nine months to mature are being washed away by heavy rain. In the dry season communities planted close to rivers in the hopes of speeding up the drought recovery, but now these much needed crops have been swept away by the heavy rain.

IOM is the only international disaster relief organisation with a permanent base in Jiwaka. It plans to carry out community-based disaster assessment management training for the communities that experience frequent disasters to show people how to prevent and react to disasters.

Amidst all the destruction and doom, there was a moment of joy and celebration in Jiwaka. A day after International Women’s Day, IOM was distributing water containers in the community of Kilip. As the distribution took place, just a few metres away a great water source was found by the IOM funded borehole contractor. Water gushed to the surface. The water will need to be checked and certified as safe to drink, but judging by its size, it is estimated that it could last for up to twenty years. Naturally, the community was delighted. Villagers and women in particular, cried and shouted with joy. They now know that this dry season their children will not have to go to sleep thirsty.

The project is being implemented by IOM throughout the PNG Highlands region, including Jiwaka Province, thanks to the contributions of USAID ($100,000) and EU ECHO ($500,000).