El Niño could leave 4 million people in Pacific without food or drinking water – ‘We’re in uncharted waters’Posted by Jim at Tuesday, October 13, 2015
By Ben Doherty
11 October 2015
(The Guardian) – 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, forecasters believe.
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 emergency.
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 security.”
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 climate change.
At the same time, the countries of the Pacific south-west – which have larger populations – will be significantly drier and hotter.
El Niño years typically have a longer, more destructive cyclone season.
“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 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
“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.” […]
“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. […] We’ve seen an unprecedented run of extreme and erratic weather, which has had very real impacts,” Bradshaw said. [more]