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Volunteers respond to severe drought conditions in Papua New Guinea

Red Cross is stepping up its support for those hit hardest by frost and drought.

Thursday January 7, 2016

Red Cross has carried out assessments in 19 of the most affected communities in the Western Highlands Province. Photo: Ana Zarkovic

Husband and wife Michael and Julie Kokom are passionate about helping people who are going through hard times.

They have been active volunteers with Red Cross for the past 12 years. Their latest mission: assessing the needs of people living in the Western Highlands region where the current El Niño climate cycle has led to severe frost and drought, all but wiping out the staple crop (kaukau) and leading to famine-like food shortages.

Michael and Julie were part of a team of Red Cross volunteers who assessed 19 of the most affected communities in Lower Kagul, a population of more than 18,000 people.

New kaukau plants take six to nine months to mature before they are ready to eat, while the water sources that would quench crops continue to dry up, leaving many with no choice but to eat frost-affected or rotting produce.

While food is the most immediate need, water shortages and the associated health threats are also critical. As springs and streams dry up, people are resorting to drinking water from open rivers contaminated by animals and used for washing clothes and bathing.

As water quality becomes worse, diseases can spread rapidly. Red Cross has been helping families to protect their health by boiling the water they collect and teaching handwashing practices. Volunteers also provided locals with practical tips to cope with the drought.

Ana Zarkovic from the International Federation of Red Cross has been supporting Papua New Guinea Red Cross with its drought response.

"I would like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of the Red Cross staff and volunteers. They worked long hours, some walking for miles to carry out detailed assessments to ensure that the needs of all members of the community, especially the most vulnerable, are represented in a fair manner," says Ana.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, the elderly and disabled are particularly at risk of nutritional deficiencies as food becomes scarcer and people cut down to one small meal a day.

As the only female member of the assessment team, Julie had an important role to play in understanding the needs of the local women.

"Especially in the highlands region, women do not talk and do not have their voices heard… I was in a good position to speak to the women and really find out what is happening to them on the ground," Julie says.

With an estimated 2.4 million people across Papua New Guinea affected by the drought, which is now entering its ninth month, Red Cross is in discussion with the World Food Program and the National Disaster Centre about food distributions to affected communities.

Red Cross will also be providing jerry cans for immediate water storage and hygiene kits.

Watch this animated video which explains how El Niño events form and how communities can prepare.

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