PNG's food bowl is all but empty as drought affects 2 million people

Goroka, Papua New Guinea: Old Kaupa Bani walks with a tall cane fashioned from a black palm outside his hut in Kanma village. Blind, burdened by joint pains, too weak to work his garden, and with no children to look after him, he has been helped by extended family.

But as a devastating drought hits Papua New Guinea with a force few rural villages were prepared for, the flow of kindness has turned into scraps in the last nine months. Some days Bani eats nothing.

"I have to be fed to get strength," Bani tells an interpreter. "But since the drought, there's been insufficient food, so I've grown very weak.

"I'm just waiting for the day my death will come and meet me."

Across the road from the home Bani rarely has the strength to leave, Anna Snaka peels a handful of weevil-ridden sweet potatoes. She adds ferns to this meagre meal she'll feed her three children, and a barely edible yam scavenged from the bush.

Until nine months ago a typical meal would have included fat, sweet potatoes, garden greens, and sometimes fish, corned beef, or chicken, and then pig or goat with taro and cassava on special occasions.


Snaka says she has planted more food, but the soil is still too hot. She had four pigs, but two have died from lack of food. She bursts into tears as she holds up the bitter yam that she and others in her village must eat out of desperation. She'll boil it twice and add salt so her children can stomach it.

The Papua New Guinean National Disaster Centre estimates the severe El Nino-driven drought currently affects 2 million people in this large Pacific island nation. In a population of 7.3 million, 87 per cent live outside urban centres; most are subsistence farmers.

The Highlands region has been called the "food bowl" of the nation, so when drought strikes, the effects ripple throughout the economy: food prices skyrocket, large-scale migration occurs as people search for work or short-term cash, and city workers send money to villages so families can buy food to survive.

But the people in Kanma village in Chuave district have few such connections to the modern economy. Anna Snaka has two older children in the Highland hub of Goroka, where they have their own struggles surviving and are unable to send money to help her.

Unlike villagers further east, who received 20-kilogram sacks of rice in government aid, Kanma villagers say they have received no relief. By their own accounts, they are starving.

Matthew Kanua, an agronomist and soil scientist, worked through the 1997 drought and now coordinates the response for PNG's churches. Having assessed the evidence collected by this reporter, he says Kanma village is slipping from Category 3 to Category 4 in drought assessment terms: No food in gardens, only famine food (ferns, unripe bananas, bitter yams) being eaten.

Chuave district lies in the central highlands province of Simbu in Papua New Guinea, just 435 kilometres north-west of the busy capital Port Moresby. This rugged, mountainous terrain produces coffee which attracts a premium. Yet the rural road remains a barrier for many in getting their beans to market and joining the cash economy in earnest.

There are times, according to local farmer Max Soa, when the road is so wet and impassable that they put their coffee bags on the back of the car and carry the car along Gun-Beroma Road to the nearest junction.

The road that becomes Gun-Beroma runs atop a ridge among a handful of narrow ranges that stretch finger-like out of the western slopes of Mount Elimbari.

Heartbreaking stories of the drought pervade this 32-kilometre stretch, nowhere more than in Kanma, where the limestone-and-dirt track dips 500 metres before coming to a halt just as the valley tips sharply down to the Wagi river.

Kanma's water supply is as sparse as its food: Mount Elimbari's streams are drying up – and here, at the end of Gun-Beroma Road, a mere trickle piped out from a spring must provide for 270 people. Villagers complain of "small red snakes" in the water and of sickness afflicting those who drink it.

A hundred metres east up the hill, the small village of Odinoma rests on a slope to the left of the road. On the lip of the bluff sits Gima Hebe with her two grandchildren. She has been trying to sell fried flour balls to passersby since 7am, without luck.

She explains that her family is surviving off taro stems. They had a mother goat and two kids. The mother died because the grass was so dry. The kids are on the verge of starvation, and she, her daughter and five grandchildren are not faring much better.

Hebe's son has gone to Port Moresby seeking financial support from extended family; her daughter-in-law has stayed to help her find food.

Hebe says she and her family received a 10-kilo sack of rice from the government to share with another family. It lasted five days and they haven't received any further handouts.

Meteorologists are cautious not to link the drought to climate change, but while long temperature records for the Highlands don't exist, some studies report they are one degree hotter than 30 years ago. More compellingly, says Karl Braganza, manager of Climate Monitoring at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, the glaciers around Puncak Jaya in West Papua – part of the same mountain range that runs east-west across the island of New Guinea – are rapidly disappearing, a strong indicator of warming in the PNG Highlands more generally.

Temperature change in the Highlands is also visible as lower-altitude trees like coconuts bear fruit in places they didn't before, and lower-altitude diseases, like malaria, become more prevalent.

The PNG government appears keen to control the response to this unfolding disaster, without outside help. However, their controversial decision to place responsibility for drought relief with members of parliament has been criticised as a cynical ploy designed to curry voter favour before the 2017 election.

Some say the government's effort has also been fraught with inefficiency, as competent assessments provided by the National Disaster Centre don't always make it through the poor lines of communication between national, provincial and district governments.

Delivering food supplies out from main centres to the remote locations remains a costly challenge. And, ironically, it's precisely when the rains begin that death rates soar.

"When the rains really start they wash a whole bunch of stuff into the rivers, which just really destroys the water quality," says CARE's emergency response coordinator Blossum Gilmour. "As people get weaker, and their immune systems get weakened by the lack of food, they're more vulnerable to things like diarrheal outbreaks."

Everywhere there are signs that traditional mechanisms for coping are crumbling under some of the driest conditions in a hundred years.

Families struggling to look after immediate kin are leaving the elderly and infirm to fend for themselves. Bulb onion farmer Henry Wai, from Maramun village, two kilometres east of Kanma, says that with the struggle to keep immediate family alive, widows, widowers, and childless adults like Kaupa Bani are left behind.

Wai, 32, belongs to a cooperative of 65 farmers that lost about 80 per cent of this year's crop due to the drought.

"Every day it's a nightmare for these people to put food on the table," says Chris Suya, a post-harvest officer with the Fresh Produce Development Agency, whose job it was to oversee the farm-to-market distribution of this first bulb onion crop for the farmers.

Wai's cousin, Max Soa, 43, also a member of the Maramun cooperative known as Yori Aura Model Farm, explains that they were relying on their first bulb onion crop as their other crops were "seared by the sun".

In a desperate effort to save even 20 per cent of their crop, whole families – men, women and children – twice daily lugged water from Maramun's last remaining water source, up a steep incline to the collective's 44 plots. For Soa, his wife, sons and daughter, this meant eight back-breaking trips with 20-litre water containers.

"We did not expect this sun," says Soa. "We did not."

Those bulb onion plots, in which the Yori Aura farmers invested so much hope, were often tended at the expense of their own food gardens. The drought was a double whammy for these remote farmers trying to shift from subsistence farming to a more cash-focused economy.

"The way out of drought is to buy your way out," says Kanua, the agronomist and soil scientist, "to have cash in the bank."

At the opposite end of Maramun from the bulb onion farm, elderly widow Sarah Marome lives with her two farmer sons Gideon and Soa. Gideon's wife died in 2013, leaving behind four young children; Soa is crippled by constant leg pain and fits.

Not long after daybreak, Marome weeds the flourishing garden she painstakingly planted after rain six weeks ago. She has bet on a single garden – the only garden that she has. Before she goes, she cooks a breakfast of small sweet potatoes for her grandchildren. But like so many mornings since the drought hit, she does not eat.

For the most vulnerable, like Marome in Maramun and Kaupa Bani in Kanma village, the wait for food security is a precarious one.

"I live as long as the day I live," old Kaupa Bani says.