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Dry spell leaves thousands food insecure

Mangrove fruit is a staple part of some islanders' diet
(Courtesy of Mike Bourke)

Aid workers say more than 6,000 people on a remote cluster of islands off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG) have been left food insecure following an extended dry spell.

"The situation is now under control, but these people will need food in three months," Ruger Kahwa, head of the Humanitarian Support Unit of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN from Port Moresby.

The government has distributed 34,000kg of rice to the isolated islands, expected to last a few months, but post-distribution monitoring is needed, Kahwa said.

Data on rainfall is not collected for this area, but the Nissan, Carteret, Mortlock, Fead, Pinipel and Tasman islands of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville traditionally experience a dry season from October to April. The rainy season, May to September, is critical to the harvest of sweet potato, banana and taro, the staple foods in an area where many residents are subsistence farmers.

This year, however, the rains have largely stayed away, leaving islanders, disconnected from the rest of PNG, with a food shortage.

"Because of the very hot sun, everything was wiped out. There was a water shortage, and the coconut plants went dry so people could not drink coconut water either," said Franklin Leslie, coordinator of aid distribution for the Government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville.

Islanders normally resort to the clear liquid of young coconuts when faced with short-term water scarcity.

"There are no international NGOs or outside donors helping with money, supplies, or support," said Godfrey Hannett of the National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) and a former resident of Nissan Island.

Drought memory

The extended dry spell brought back memories of the 1997-1998 drought, the most severe to hit the half-island nation, affecting more than 1.2 million people.

However, Leslie cautioned, "It is not the time to hit the panic button. We are starting to replant now, and the rain is coming in." Having a dry period is normal for these islands, he noted, but it is more difficult for the small islands and atolls to prepare for unpredictable changes in climate. "It is very hard to predict weather patterns now. It is very different from what we experienced in the past," he said.

NARI has called on the government to establish food banks and resilient agriculture systems to prevent similar situations in future.

Agricultural scientist Mike Bourke of the Australian National University said islanders would have to modify their subsistence lifestyles to avoid being disproportionately harmed by adverse weather conditions.

"The common factor in those places which experienced higher death rates on the mainland during the 1997-1998 drought was poverty and remoteness. They did not have money. Where people had money they bought rice in very large quantities," he said.

Bourke said this year's extended dry season meant the more potent threat of too much rain was unlikely.

Climate change will have a big impact on these small islands, experts say. Unpredictable changes in weather patterns are making life harder for farmers, while rising sea levels are causing erosion and the salinization of fresh water due to storm surges crashing over the atolls.

"Every single model predicts rainfall will increase in the Western Pacific. It all says it will get wetter, not drier," Bourke said. This will pose a serious challenge to the dietary and agricultural habits of the islanders, he said.

"The best option is for people to engage in more trading. If you're not linked to a larger economy, you are potentially much more vulnerable," Bourke said. "Drought is much easier to worry about and it is on everyone's mind because of the events of 14 years ago. But the problem of increasing rainfall is far more insidious."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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