Pacific drought to get worse as fears turn to disease
As the El Niño weather pattern ensures a long a tough drought season in the Pacific, specialists are warning countries to prepare for diseases.
As the El Niño weather pattern ensures a long, tough drought season in the Pacific, specialists are warning countries to prepare for outbreaks of disease.
Drought is already affecting much of the Pacific, with food and water shortages estimated to be affecting more than a million people.
And with the system expected to last well into next year, many say the worst is yet to come.
Alex Perrottet reports.
In Fiji, the scenario is typical of recent years, long stretches with no rain for months in the remote Yasawa islands and other parts of the western and northern divisions.
Despite some rain from a tropical depression some weeks ago, the Principal Disaster Management Officer, Sunia Ratulevu says it wasn't enough to relieve the 67,000 people currently affected.
SUNIA RATULEVEU: "But not really any major impact on the drought situation that we have, but it did give us a slight relief. We are still monitoring the situation and we will respond to any immediate need that arises and we still have the capacity to do that."
Sunia Ratulevu says the fire department and ships have already started to cart water to remote villages.
In Tonga, the Niua islands in the north did get rain this week, but the rest of the country is dry.
The National Emergency Office director, Leveni 'Aho, says they are looking at running expensive desalination plants.
LEVENI 'AHO: "It's all based on a diesel-generated desalination plant but we have one on the main island of Ha'apai which is on standby but so far we haven't activated those as yet, but we will be ready to activate those when the needs arise."
But Fiji and Tonga's problems are small when compared to the estimated 848,000 people in Papua New Guinea classified as experiencing a severe level of distress.
The United Nations' Development Programme's Country Director in PNG, Roy Trivedy, says providing relief must start with long-term thinking.
ROY TRIVEDY: "We are working with the government to plan for the possibility that even if we get rainfall soon in some parts of the country, of course people are not naturally going to have seeds to plant so how much support will people require for longer-term food security, even after the rains come."
The director of the disaster management office of the Solomon Islands Loti Yates, says crop failure there has begun and there's a nation-wide awareness campaign about conserving water for the difficult months ahead.
LOTI YATES: "For that alone we will be needing support in as far as media awareness. So if our partners in country are able to do that we would be really appreciating their support. Awareness is key to ensuring people are prepared for possible severe impacts of the drought."
However, a food and agriculture specialist, Mike Bourke, says the focus needs to shift to more immediate plans for bringing relief to remote areas, where historically the greater numbers of deaths from droughts have occurred.
He says people will be doing all they can to use what water they manage to access, but inevitably, the rivers are drying up and the sources will become contaminated.
MIKE BOURKE: "So these are water-borne diseases because people are drinking water that may be contaminated. They might be washing less than they normally do, so typhoid in particular, but other water-borne diseases. But then what we've seen already in PNG is an increase in diarrhoea and in the past an increase in dysentery."
Mike Bourke says the risk of malaria also increases as drying riverbeds leave small stagnant pools for mosquitos to breed.
Roy Trivedy says he is also worried about disease.
ROY TRIVEDY: "But we are very concerned about the fact that if people do not receive relief items, if they don't have safe water, if they don't have access to food then we will start to see more illnesses. And we need to make sure that both in terms of water borne diseases and so on that we take preventative action as quickly as possible."
The director for women and children in Vanuatu says areas that were just starting to recover from Cyclone Pam in March are taking another battering.
Dorosday (Doris Day) Kenneth went with a team to Tanna two weeks ago and says there's a stark lack of food.
DOROSDAY KENNETH: "We were shocked to see that there were cases of malnutrition when we visited a hospital. We had to get some of the children from North Tanna sent to the hospital [Lenakel Hospital on Tanna] because we believed that that's the best way where they could get the supervision from the nurses and also more nutritious food for the children."
Mike Bourke says in these remote places, there are simply no supplies for people to buy, even if they had money, and more reliable supplies will be more effective than desalination plants.
He says the drought is even impacting children's education.
MIKE BOURKE: "Back in August when things really started to bite in Papua New Guinea, lots of schools, many schools, we're talking about tens and tens of thousands of children were only going to school part time. But as this has progressed onwards, we're now in November, and a lot of schools have closed down completely. Now this is because there's not enough water both for the teachers, but also the students."
Mike Bourke says it's hard to predict just how long this drought will last.
He says the last big drought in the summer of 1997 lasted well into the next year in some areas, while rain came relatively quickly in others.
Since then, though, regional agencies have sought to grow capacity and resilience, but in the Pacific that resilience is hard to come by when recovery is interrupted by the near constant disasters.
The cyclone season has come around again, and villagers on Tanna, one of the Vanuatu islands worst hit by Cyclone Pam, are again preparing to bear the brunt.
This is Alex Perrottet.
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