MAF has begun distributing food to communities affected by famine in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
There have been warnings of an impending crisis affecting an estimated two million people since drought and frosts decimated the sweet potato crop earlier in the year – severely affecting Highland areas.
According to MAF Operations Manager Michael Duncalfe, ‘the MP for the Telefomin area has arranged for bags of rice to be flown to Tabubil by the PNG Defence Force transport aircraft, from where MAF will distribute it to local communities.’
‘The first load of relief food, 10kg bags of rice, has been flown out to Tabubil where one of our Twin Otter aircraft will start distributing it to remote communities this week.’
‘The relief effort has been delayed but at least it is now under way,’ Michael continues. ‘Our base staff in Mount Hagen have helped load the PNG Defence Force aircraft with 3 tonnes of rice at a time, for what I think will be a total of around 19 flights in all.’
Recent rain... but too late?
Papua New Guinea produces almost all of its own food, with an estimated 85% of the population engaged in agricultural production.
Many of these living in remote and isolated villages are served by MAF.
Although the area has received some rain since the drought began to bite in August, allowing people to replant their gardens for the coming season, people are afraid there could be an extended period of famine that will be even worse than that caused by the 1997-1998 drought.
Michael reports that ‘the Hagen area has had some substantial rain this week – probably more than two inches – though the soil is moist but not sodden. I don't know quite how widespread it's been, but reports have been received that Goroka and Rumginae also had puddles.’
Reflecting on the usual PNG weather pattern from a pilot's perspective, Michael continues, ‘November is about the time when the seasons change and the south-eastern trade winds are replaced by the north-westerlies.
‘During this period we almost always get some bad weather. Sometimes it’s so bad it's impossible to fly because, even if Mount Hagen Airport is open, the mountain airstrips often aren't.
‘Whether or not regular rain continues, we'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, it is very welcome, and I hope it will be sufficient for crops to grow in the rural areas.’
PNG is affected periodically by droughts as part of the El Niño weather phenomenon. The image below, taken by Michael Duncalfe, shows the Telefomin valley in 2009 pictured 12 years after the last drought.
The likelihood that an event of a similar magnitude would take place, continuing for anything between 8-10 months, was deemed extremely likely earlier this year.'The rainforest has a haze of grey brown from the skeletons of thousands upon thousands of dead trees...' - Michael Duncalfe
Villagers taking advantage of the dry weather to burn dry vegetation and clear the land around their communities exacerbate the problem, with thick smoke making it impossible for our pilots to land.
Michael says he was ‘planning on flying foodstuffs for a local trade store to Bak, about 70 nautical miles north-west of Mount Hagen, when a fellow pilot told us not to bother trying – the local people are burning so much grass and forest that the smoke was too thick to see enough to land. It literally is a case of stopping burning or going without food!’
- For the government to provide effective relief to the areas in greatest need including those in eastern Highland areas hardest hit by the famine
- That the logistics and distribution of relief by MAF to the Min area will go smoothly and reach those in greatest need
- There would be more rain on the way so all the communities can start growing crops again
- For fuel: the low river levels caused by the drought make sourcing fuel supplies, which are normally transported by barge, a challenge.