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My Walk to Equality

Forgotten – the vulnerable populations of Papua New Guinea

ForgottenESTHER LAVU & CHRIS BANGA | National Research Institute | Edited extracts

EVERY year on 11 July is World Population Day. This year it marked the recognition of vulnerable populations in an emergency context.

A population affected by emergencies - wars, natural disasters or social problems - faces higher risks of disease, violence, hunger and homelessness, the devastating effects of which lead to a shift from normal lives to challenging conditions.

Vulnerability can also come about as a natural and unavoidable part of life or it can be created and sustained by social arrangements.

The majority of Papua New Guineans live in rural areas and spend most of their time involved in subsistence gardening or fishing or other economic activities to sustain their livelihoods.

They have access to safe drinking water, food and a place to sleep. But this way of life changes drastically when a natural disaster occurs and what is normal is no longer there to sustain their existence.

PNG is situated along a volatile seismic band known as the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ which makes it susceptible to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Other disasters include droughts, floods, landslides, tropical cyclones and king tides. When natural disasters occur, sometimes affected communities adapt to the conditions but in other cases life is never the same. These are the vulnerable populations in emergency situations.

In PNG’s history, one of the worst natural disasters occurred on 17 July 1998 when a tsunami struck near Aitape in the West Sepik Province and proved to be one of the deadliest on record. The tsunami devastated the villages of Sisano, Warupu, Arop and Malol and more than 2,000 people lost their lives.

The 10,000 people who were affected and survived were clearly vulnerable. While many moved on with their lives, others had to make the bold decision to move.

Tavurvur and Manam are PNG’s most active volcanoes. Mount Tavurvur, erupted in 2014 and also recorded eruptions in 2013, 2011, 2010, 2006, 2005 and 2002. The most notable eruption occurred in 1994 and affected many people living in East New Britain.

It was a devastating time in which people lost their homes and food gardens and had no access to safe drinking water. Evacuation programs were implemented which assisted people recover and make new homes away from their traditional villages.

At first, there was resistance to moving to new areas. Nevertheless, people eventually accepted that they needed to move to a place where basic services like water and sewerage were available. These incentives motivated people to rebuild their lives.

Manam Island in Madang Province experienced similar devastation in 2004 when its volcano erupted. The Manam islanders’ situation was far from being a success story. Almost 10,000 residents were evacuated to care centres on the mainland where they have now been living for over nine years.

Many social issues have also emerged as they struggle to live their lives – an example of a vulnerable population.

The natural disasters experienced in PNG mostly occur unexpectedly and nearly all have devastating effects.

Analysing past experiences with natural disasters is essential in supporting programs required for addressing issues faced by the vulnerable populations such as shortage of food and water and lack of shelter.

When PNG responds to these vulnerable populations in emergency situations, it will show that we have a society that is responsive to the needs of all and a society where no one will be neglected.


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Doug Robbins

“The Volcano’s Wife” (2015) by the widow and daughter of Northern District Commissioner Cecil Cowley who perished with his son when Mt Lamington erupted in 1951 says the official death toll was 4,000 not including children, but teams tending the burn victims estimated it closer to 13,000 (page 136).

“Fire Mountains of the Islands” (2013) states “a more accurate number will never be known” (page 159).

More on Oro Province from “Fire Mountains of the Islands” pages 361-3 and 373: download for free PDF 15.2MB which opens

“Historically or potentially active volcanoes have caused justifiable concern for the safety and livelihoods of local communities. These include … Goropu (and) Victory … (an) example of (a) ‘sleeper’ volcano … capable of producing eruptions larger than when … last active in the nineteenth century”.

“High coastal volcanoes such as … Victory … could produce major gravitational collapses and widespread tsunamis in the future, or else calderas, together with large accompanying eruptions”.

“Evacuations of people from active volcanic areas undoubtedly took place before 1937 — for example, at Victory in the 1880s — but little if anything is known about them. Gorupu 1943 … evacuations took place without them first being declared by authorities … where the actual outbreak of an unexpected volcanic eruption triggered the movement of people away from a volcano to places of greater safety, in most cases immediately. Authorities in all … cases played no part in disaster-mitigation efforts before the outbreak of eruptions”.

“Legislation to prevent development in areas vulnerable to natural hazards can be productive… Scientists, engineers, technicians and town planners also can consider DRR (Disaster-Risk Reduction) issues when designing the placement and construction of roads and bearing in mind evacuation routes to predetermined refuges … and critical infrastructure such as … airports and harbours … At-risk communities can practice prescribed evacuations”.

After Cyclone “Hannah” devastated Tufi’s Cape Nelson area in May 1972 I helped with the tremendous task of ongoing relief work.

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