In Papua New Guinea one third of the population is affected by drought and frost
Vivian Jones, her oldest boy David and other three sons are living on a single meal a day - down from the three they used to eat. Frost and drought which El Niño has brought to Vivian’s village in Gumine in Papua New Guinea’s highlands has left her sugar cane crop badly reduced - there’s not going to be any to sell so as to buy other food. On top of that, there’s much less on sale in the market and prices are rising in the highlands, where 40% of the population lives.
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Photo credit: FAO
Vivian usually harvests ten or twelve fruits from each plant but this year it’s only two or three. They’re withering for lack of water. For her, this El Niño is already worse than that of 1997-8, which led to the most devastating drought ever in Papua New Guinea’s history. Over a million people were affected.

In several provinces of Papua New Guinea, local water supplies have dried up to such extent that villagers are forced to walk for many hours to collect enough for their personal needs - not to water their crops. Some are being forced to drink contaminated water and have fallen ill, while some health facilities have closed as they have no water either. As part of its new Early Warning Early Action response strategy for El Niño, FAO is targeting severely affected countries such as Papua New Guinea with support including drought adaptation training and seed re-stocking.

Vivian has taken part in a training session on drought adaptation and smart irrigation techniques. She says she is impressed with what she has learned – especially a simple drip irrigation system using a hose with little holes, which uses less water. FAO’s plan is to expand the workshops as widely as possible as the effects of El Niño are felt even more harshly. Drought tolerant crops – such as early maturing varieties of sweet potato, Irish potato, pumpkin, cassava and open-pollinated corn – also need to be planted. FAO will combine supplies of seeds and irrigation materials with hands on adaptation training to support the early recovery of people suffering from this El Niño. In the longer term, water collection needs to be addressed – when there is no El Niño, Papua New Guinea is one of the wettest countries in the world due to its monsoon season – but little water is collected and stored.

Also at the irrigation training course is Paul Wai, Livelihoods Coordinator for a local NGO, Community Development Agency. He lives down the hill from Vivian but works in her village of Gumine. In his village – Kundiawa, the capital of Simbu province – El Niño’s impact has been rated at 3 out of 5 by a government assessment in terms of its severity. Vivian’s village has been rated 5. Paul told FAO that local coping strategies are being used – but he fears they will not be enough. “When they have no food, the custom is to visit a family member or friend and ask for help. But tradition means a person can only ask once. After that, they have to go hungry or sell whatever they have – even their agricultural tools.”

Over 2.4 million people are already affected in Papua New Guinea, 1.3 million of them severely. That 34% of the country’s total population is facing difficulties is a significant proportion. All but 15% of them live in rural areas, relying solely on subsistence agriculture. The rugged terrain and lack of infrastructure also hampers intervention strategies. During the last severe El Niño in 1997-98, the Australian military had to step in with a major relief operation. Already, the amount of food for sale in most markets is down by as much as 50% while prices in some areas have tripled. Jimmy Mindipi, the Regional Director of the Department of Agriculture and Livestock in the Highlands Province told a programme officer from FAO that to him this El Niño was already worse than that of 1997-8. Then, two districts in his province were affected whereas now eight already are.

FAO plans to intervene to support 560 000 people in 80 000 households in the four worst affected provinces – Enga, Simbu, the Southern Highlands and Morobe. It is appealing for donor funding of 4.9 million USD to step in quickly under the El Niño emergency preparedness and response programme.
Copyright 2016 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs