Half a million affected by PNG food shortages - academic
An agriculture expert from the Australian National University details the impact of frost and drought on food supply in Papua New Guinea.
An academic from the Australian National University says half a million people in Papua New Guinea are short of food in PNG because of the drought.
Much of the country, like other parts of the Pacific, has been in the grip of a severe drought since the middle of the year due to the El Nino weather pattern.
Mike Bourke, who is a specialist in PNG agriculture, told Don Wiseman there has been recent rain but it has fallen unevenly, with varying implications across the country.
MIKE BOURKE: Let me come to the rain first of all. Basically from the equator, one degree south of the equator, through to about seven degrees there has been rain or variable amounts of rain. From seven degrees, from seven through to about 10, 11 degrees south there is much less rain. So what that means in practice, the southern part of Western Province, the coast up and down from Port Moresby and the islands from Milne Bay haven't got much rain and all and water is still an issue for a lot of people. For much of the country the water situation has eased so that's just with the rain. It does depend on how much rain you get. Urban people would feel pretty happy when it rains and the tanks fill up but it may not be enough from an agricultural point of view necessarily. In terms of impact, the people who have sago, sago is an important food revenue and supplementary food, if they get some rain and they can then process their sago logs things get a lot easier for them. Within a few weeks of getting good rain, it has to be enough rain to make streams flow permanently again, if they get really good rain and then things can ease relatively easily for sago growing areas. The people that don't have sago, it depends on altitude. Basically as you go up in altitude everything takes longer to grow. For example sweet potato you can harvest in three or four months on the coast at sea level. 1600 metres, 1800 metres in the main Highland valleys you are talking about five or six months. Above 2000, say between 2200 and 2800 metres we are talking about seven, eight, nine months before you can even get to first harvest and the main crop might be a year. The issue is where people have been hit by the frost at the really high altitudes, we're talking at above 2200 metres now, so 2200 to 2800 metres where they had repeated severe frost in July, August and the beginning of September, everything is gone. All the sweet potato and all the potatoes have gone, the English potato and it's going to take a long time for people to re-establish because it is not just a matter of planting once the rain comes but also a lot of people have left. What will happen, the adults, a husband and wife team might come back establish some gardens but there is no food so they'll go back to where the pigs and the older people and the kids are camping at the lower altitudes. They will oscillate up and down. As there is a bit more food they will be able to move up and down. The whole process of actually re-establishing in an extreme situation can take as much as three years. I'm not saying that's for everyone but at a very high altitude it can take a long time before everything is back into setting up into a continuous system so there is a continuous supply of sweet potatoes that is flowing through, flowing from the mounds, to keep the whole agricultural system going. So it is quite complicated and quite variable.
DON WISEMAN: How many people do you think are affected, as is?
MB: We've just done an assessment and our figures are a little bit over half a million. Now those people, about half of those live in the very high altitudes, a little over half of those are above 2200 metres. About a third, over on the edge of the Highlands, they're at Highland altitude but a lit bit lower than Highlands. Not in the main Highland valleys were things are better and there's more money and roads and everything, but on the edge of the Highlands where there's no roads. Then there is about a tenth of those people that live on the southern part of Western Province where there's no roads, not much money, extremely remote, I mean really remote. The balance of four or five percent live out on some very small and remote islands, mostly Milne Bay province. Our figures are a little of half a million people at the moment.
DW: Your area of expertise is food production but are we looking at a major catastrophe?
MB: I wouldn't say a major catastrophe in the sense that the bulk of the population are buying their way out of trouble. I mean if we go back to '97, rice imports increased by 40 percent which is 60,000 tonnes over what was expected in '97/'98. 82 percent of that was brought by ordinary people, mum and and dad in the village. We're seeing the same thing happening now. We've been talking this morning to people from the coast of Central Province and there people are mixing port rice with their limited cash, with bananas and a little bit of cassava so all over Papua New Guinea people are buying rice. Rice imports have been going up dramatically. It's not a major catastrophe. Where we have some pretty clear evidence, it's not totally based on really good surveys but it is pretty unequivocal in my view, where the death rate is going up, the common denominator here is the fact that they're remote. Really remote. So this is parts of inland Gulf Province, where three provinces meet in very low population density, and inland and lower land Western Province where the clearest evidence of death rates is. We are not talking about tens of thousands of people, nothing like that, but the death rate appears to be going up.
DW: They are dying as a result of malnutrition?
MB: Malnutrition but as much as anything, it's the ordinary diseases that are around but when people are really weak and then they are walking long distances to try and get water, to process sago, or to find food, they are more vulnerable. They are dying from disease according to the report. Some people are just dying. They are dying of maybe cholera or typhoid. It's not clear what they are dying from but as much as anything there seems to be an increased disease load. You also get higher rates of malaria when you have a drought and that's because the streams dry up and mosquitoes can breed in stagnant water.
DW: So we are not looking at a major catastrophe but there is a significant problem still in terms of ensuring everybody has food so is there enough work being done by governments and aid agencies and so on?
MB: Things are moving in the right direction. I'm working closely with what's known as the church partnership at the moment, seven of the churches, I am working very closely with them. There is the World Food Programme involved. Papua New Guinea government, I'm giving presentations, there's a two-day workshop at the moment with the PNG government. I'm doing presentations at that. There's quite a bit happening. The challenge at the moment is first of all to work out where the problems are and that's where my contribution is, to say these are the high priority areas. Secondly to find funding and then the logistics of getting food out are pretty horrendous. The sums of money involved are large. The volumes of food are large. I mean just to give you an indication, if you wanted to buy food for 10,000 people for 120 days, that's two million kina, which is about a million aussie dollars. That's just to buy the food. It doesn't take it anywhere. If you are flying it in a light aircraft you can more than double that to a lot of these areas. If you take it by chopper, the price goes through the roof. The cost is huge and the volumes are huge and that's why myself and my colleagues are working hard to try and pinpoint the locations where things are worst. That has to be the priorities.
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