Starvation is not the death threat, dis-ease is.

IMG_0065 copyAccording to statistics collected after the 1997 El Nino in Papua New Guinea and reported by Bang et al (2003), a total of 1.2 million people suffered from severe food shortages. The two regions most severely impacted were the Highlands with 169,000 and the Southern region with 62,000 people with almost no food available locally.

Water supply was reduced to critical levels throughout the country. Ponds, wells, creeks and smaller rivers dried up, but larger rivers continued to flow, although at much reduced levels. In many places, available water sources became contaminated, sometimes because wild and domestic animals used the same water source as humans and partly because on islands and coastal areas seawater infiltrated normally fresh water supplies.

Loss of life was recorded within the drought period. Most of these deaths were in rural areas than urban areas and affected more children and the elderly  ((Igua 2000), Lemmonier (2000)).

 Lemmonier (2000), an anthropologist working with the Ankave-Anga in the remote mountains of Kerema  reported 80 deaths from the two years of drought. The deaths reduced the population of this remote mountain people by 20%.

According to the author, the mortality was due to diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria and dysentery that attacked people whose body was already made weak by diminished caloric intake.

And in his observation,  “people who were accustomed to drinking directly from watercourses with pure water were forced to drink from pools of polluted water. This was probably responsible for the epidemic that decimated the people from Ankave- Anga, perhaps due to typhoid.” (Pierre 2000).

Similar sentiments were expressed in other post 1997 El Niño reports which were presented at a food security conference held in the year 2000 at the University of Technology, Lae.  A copy of the conference proceedings containing all the important lessons learnt can be accessed here.

From the experience, what can we do to help?

First and foremost is to look after human health. A diminished intake of calories and a reduction in the variety of food depletes the body of essential minerals and vitamins. This will cause the body to become weak and succumb to dis-ease.  Old people and young people, pregnant women and people with a compromised immune system are especially vulnerable and must be protected.

A practical step will include a change in the daily routines. The vulnerable group must be protected from over exertion. Any hard work must be scheduled for the cooler parts of the day. Even the strong must innovate to avoid over exertion to preserve energy.  The hottest parts of the day must be used for other meaningful activities, for instance, the creative arts (e.g. making bilum or clothes or making beads and carvings) to sell for money.

All food must be cooked well before consumption. And attention must be given to maintaining a high level of personal hygiene.

Second is the protection of water sources. It is important to protect water sources and this includes protecting coconut palms for their nuts and juice.

Even if big rivers keep flowing, the flow would be reduced, and the water would be warmer thereby encouraging algal bloom. Algae in waterway can contaminate drinking water as well as cause skin diseases. Furthermore, in the absence of a good hygiene or good information on hygiene, it is easy for humans to contaminate water sources leading to a spread of disease.

Water wells in lowland may dry up or get an intrusion of salt water rendering it, undrinkable.

Water sources must be protected, even if that means erecting strict rules around water sources. Any human waste must be put into a toilet to avoid contamination of water sources. Animals must be watered away from the human drinking water source. Most importantly, all drinking water must be boiled.

Minimal water intake over long periods of hot days can result in dehydration. Death from dehydration happens sooner than death by starvation.  An essential first aid is the Oral Rehydration Sachets (ORS). The small one dose sachet contains minerals, salts and sugar that must be mixed with water and drank as a  first aid dehydration treatment. Any person can buy their own supply since ORS is very cheap and sold in all pharmacies.

In a drought, it is also advisable to remove any liabilities. This may include selling extra animals for money and use that cash to buy food and medicine.

Apart from the disease outbreaks. Law and order will be an issue. 1997 reports show an increased migration out from affected areas. Mostly from the badly affected high altitude areas down to the lower valley, towns and even distant cities.  Stealing to survive, both in the rural areas as well as in towns will increase (Kiza and Kin 2000).  People must be extra vigilant. When faced with a decision to defend loss of property from theft, the best option would be that which uses less energy.

During the last drought, there were hungry and thirsty people, but few died from starvation (Barter, 2000). Most deaths were from diseases. Therefore it is important to look after the health of people in this El Nino season.

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