Two dozen people have already died from hunger and drinking
contaminated water in drought-stricken Papua New Guinea, but the
looming El Niño crisis could leave more than four million people
across the Pacific without enough food or clean water.
The El Niño weather pattern -
when waters in the eastern tropical Pacific ocean become warmer,
driving extreme weather conditions - may be as severe as in
1997-98, when an estimated 23,000 people died,
In Papua New Guinea's Chimbu province in the highlands region, a
prolonged drought has been exacerbated by sudden and severe frosts
which have killed off almost all crops. The provincial disaster
centre has confirmed 24 people have
died from starvation and drinking contaminated water.
Provincial disaster co-ordinator Michael Ire Appa told RadioNZ he feared the death
toll could even be higher.
"The drought has been here for almost three months now and in
areas that were affected by the drought there's a serious food
shortage, including water, and some of the districts have not
reported, so there may be more [deaths] than that," he said.
Two highlands provinces have already declared a state of
Oxfam Australia's climate change policy advisor Dr Simon
Bradshaw said many parts of PNG would run out of food in two or
three months, but in some areas there was as little as a month's
food left, and few ways to get more in.
"In the highland areas people are almost exclusively reliant on
subsistence farming, farming of sweet potatoes. We do know that
water is becoming very scarce, that's of course impacting food
production, and PNG is almost entirely dependent on its own food -
I think 83% of its food is produced in-country - so any hit on food
production poses immediate challenges in terms of food
Over the coming months, the El Niño
pattern will bring more rain, flooding and higher sea
levels to countries near the equator, raising the risk of
inundation for low-lying atolls already feeling the impacts of
At the same time, the countries of the Pacific south-west -
which have larger populations - will be significantly drier and
El Niño years typically have a longer, more destructive cyclone
"El Niño has the potential to trigger a regional humanitarian
emergency and we estimate as many as 4.1 million people are at risk
from water shortages, food insecurity and disease across the
Pacific," Sune Gudnitz, head of the Pacific region office of
Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
"Countries including Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga
and the Solomon Islands are already feeling El Niño's impact with
reduced rainfall affecting crops and drinking-water supplies.
Drought conditions would further complicate the humanitarian
situation in countries that are just emerging from the devastation
caused by tropical cyclones Pam, Maysak and Raquel."
Many countries across the region are entering the El Niño period
in a vulnerable state. Drought has been
officially declared in 34 provinces in Indonesia, while in Vanuatu
- still recovering from the devastation of cyclone Pam, which
struck in March - authorities are warning reduced rainfall will
damage food security, health and livelihoods.
In some parts of Fiji, water is already being trucked into
villages that have run out. And Tonga, which has suffered a drought
for nearly a year, has been forced to ship water supplies to the
country's outer islands.
Countries where food insecurity affects large proportions of the
population were of special concern, Bradshaw said.
"With an El Niño event, you usually get about one-fifth less
rainfall across the country as well as significant changes to the
timing of the rainy season, a lot more rain concentrated in
January, and that, combined with deforestation, increases the risk
of landslides, flash floods, damage to infrastructure and
destruction of crops. Timor Leste is somewhere we're watching
particularly closely because of the existing challenges, and the
effect the El Niño will have on top of that."
Bradshaw said the impact of the El Niño would compound the
difficulties faced by Pacific countries struggling to cope with the
effects of climate change.
He said recent research suggested El Niño patterns - usually
seen every three to seven years - could now occur twice as
frequently, and that "normal" conditions might become more similar
to those of El Niño.
"We've had two unusually hot years, and now we've got a very
strong El Niño event, so I think it would be fair to say,
unfortunately, that we're in uncharted waters. What we've seen is
somewhat unprecedented and climate change is increasingly going to
put us in that position."
The countries most affected by the combined effects of climate
change and El Nino are - for reasons of geography, economy,
governance and remoteness - often the least equipped to deal with their
"We've seen an unprecedented run of extreme and erratic weather,
which has had very real impacts," Bradshaw said. "Of course, those
impacts are felt first and hardest by the world's poorest
communities, but these countries are also the least responsible for
climate change. They've contributed negligibly to global greenhouse
"I think it drives home the fact that climate change affects us
all; it affects poorer countries first and hardest, but we have a
responsibility as a wealthy, developed nation to be both doing far
more to reduce our own emissions, but also to be providing greater
support with adaptation and resilience-building to poorer
Bradshaw said the effects of the El Niño, combined with climate
change, should drive all countries towards a strong agreement at
climate change talks in Paris in December.