West Papua: first one, then two, now five....
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17m population shock was hidden from public

The 17 million population estimate rang alarm bells in Canberra and was considered so sensitive the PNG government initially refused permission for it to be published

Koki in Port Moresby  Papua New Guinea
Koki, a suburb of Port Moresby best known for its market and other commercial activities

| The Australian

CANBERRA - A new United Nations study has found Papua New Guinea could have a population of 17 million – almost double the official estimate.

The new population forecast would, if accurate, would slash measures of PNG’s living standards and ramp up concerns over its fragility as a nation state.

It would nearly halve PNG’s per capita income from $3,230 (K7,700) to about $1,770 (K4,200) a year – putting Australia’s closest neighbour on par with African states such as Sudan and Senegal.

The findings are ringing alarm bells in Canberra and were considered so sensitive the PNG government – which already struggles to provide basic services to its people – had refused permission for them to be published.

The UN Population Fund study, funded by the Australian government, used satellite modelling, housing data and household surveys to arrive at the result, which eclipses the PNG government’s current estimate of 9.4 million.

The majority of the growth is believed to be in the remote Highlands provinces, where people survive through subsistence farming and violence is endemic.

Senior Australian government officials were recently briefed on the results, which are expected to feed into a major overhaul of Australia’s foreign aid program currently under way.

Australian aid to PNG is budgeted at about $600 million (K1.4 trillion) this year, and Australia has provided $1.2 billion (K2.8 trillion) in budget support since 2019.

PNG prime minister James Marape, who has vowed to make his country the “richest black Christian nation on planet Earth”, told The Australian on Sunday he doubted the UN study’s results.

Mr Marape, in Sydney for a mining conference, said he believed PNG’s population was “possibly 10 million, 11 million” but conceded “I may be wrong”, and said even his lower estimate “is too high for the size of my economy”.

“Whether it is 17 million, or 13 million or 10 million, the fact remains that my country’s formal economy is so small, job availability is so small, the resource envelope is so small, I cannot adequately educate, provide health cover, build infrastructures and create the enabling law and order environment (that the country needs),” he said.

“That is why when I negotiate for (resources) projects I want to get as much as I can within the context of present legislative frameworks we have.”

Paul Barker, executive director of PNG’s Institute of National Affairs, said the new population estimate reflected the situation on the ground, where unemployment and a weak state were feeding community unrest.

He said vast areas of the country were effectively ungoverned, relying on churches and traditional tribal structures for community cohesion.

“Formal sector employment has been virtually nil over the past 10 years,” Mr Barker said. “It's causing big frustrations for young people in particular, whose aspirations of course have grown.

“The other problem is that the government has been chasing its tail trying to provide basic health education and other services.

“I've seen secondary schools where they’ve got … classroom sizes reaching 120 students, who are travelling enormous distances in the morning and returning home at night, and probably not getting fed in the morning or in the evening.”

Development Intelligence Lab CEO Bridi Rice said the revised population estimate “blows our current poverty assessments of PNG out of the water”.

She said population growth was directly linked to state fragility, “because the inability for a government to serve its people has a direct correlation to political instability and violence”.

“Already we know that Papua New Guineans are struggling to get their kids to school, see doctors and to feel safe in their homes and communities,” she said.

“Now we know the extent of pressure society is under – this could be a furnace for an already fragile nation.”

According to the World Health Organisation, PNG currently has just one doctor per 10,000 people, and one nurse or midwife for every 2,000 people.

PNG economist Maholopa Laveil, based at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said such service delivery indicators would “drastically fall” if the new population forecast was correct.

“It would further highlight that PNG’s current funding for service delivery both nationally and to the provinces in terms of its recurrent budget is even more inadequate than it already is,” he said.

Mr Laveil said the data could also have security implications for PNG’s immediate neighbours, especially Indonesia and Solomon Islands, with porous borders potentially allowing more illegal migration.

Australian Institute of International Affairs president Allan Gyngell said the “startling” population figure had significant implications for Australia’s foreign and security policies, and would prompt a rethink of development support to the country.

“This new report is a clear reminder that the challenges for Australian foreign and security policy don't just lie in the global realm of geopolitics,” he said.

“This is very much an Australian problem just kilometres from Australia‘s border.”

Mr Gyngell said it was fortunate subsistence agriculture ensured many Papua New Guineans could still feed themselves, unlike in some African countries such as Sudan.

PNG was due to conduct a census – its first for a decade – in 2021, but the exercise was put off until 2024 due to the pandemic.

The UN Population Fund study was carried out by the University of Southampton’s World Pop unit, with the support of PNG’s National Statistical Office.

A UN spokeswoman said the methodology had been used for about 20 countries with hard-to-reach populations.

The new estimate comes amid reports of surging criminal, tribal and gender-based violence in PNG.

Dozens of people were killed during this year’s national elections, while a reported 90,000 were displaced in the Highlands due to poll-related violence.

In one gruesome incident, 18 people were killed in an attack amid fighting between warring tribes in the northern highlands province of Enga.

In the same province, the recent death of a local trucking company boss triggered shocking violence against five women accused of sorcery, the Post Courier newspaper said.

Thanks to Arthur Smedley who spotted this startling article


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Michael Dom

Census data in PNG has always been considered less a reflection of ground truth and more a best approximation based on available reported figures from household interviews.

(Rule of Thumb: Always have the salt handy.)

Rather than arguing theoretical knowledge I'll make an educated guestimate of what's likely in terms of rural population growth rates, based on recent observations, which I hope are disproved or to have my math and stats totally destroyed by more astute and learned commentators.

Often desktop studies are scoffed at even when they are designed to be as carefully adjusted within error bounds as possible, as most honest statisticians, economists and geographers attest.

Even a rudimentary exercise may show the potential for growth in our highly fecund population - if families have three kids the child-bearing women probably had about five or six pregnancies during their productive years (my guess).

As a national average for household sizes the number seven (i.e., strictly the 'nuclear family') has been a consistent finding on a number of recent baseline surveys that my teams have conducted for project work.

Last month I asked a focus group (n=25) of young couple families to describe what a common household size would be in that part (two urban-village communities) of Rai Coast.

The surprising unanimously agreed answer was 'mama, papa na faivpela pikinini '.

That may be circumstantial evidence but it nevertheless fits with National Statistics Office estimates from Census 2011 as the national average household size.

Suppose, in say 15 years time*, that those 25 families have seven members each, that's 175 people in 2037.

At a gender balance of about 40:6 males to females, say that three females from each household started their own families at around 15+ years age*, which is not unusual in PNG rural scenarios.

Then in say another 10 years (2047) we have 75 new households with five new members each: +375 in 25 years from now.

Maybe five years after them the male youth catch up with their sisters and start their
own families (males generally mate later). That's another 50 new households with maybe five new members each: +250 in 30 years.

Then from the time I met them last month to about 30 years in the future (within PNG average life expectancy) that small group I surveyed potentially has a total household population of 800 members.

Suppose those parents and I live to over 65 years of age, then that sample household population may have had a 16-fold increase during our lifetime.

If five kids for every couple is an expected objective, then that small sample of Rai Coast community may go from 25 households (couples) with 50 members to 150 households with 800 members in 30 years.

Even if we say there's a 20% mortality rate, that's still 640 people, for a growth rate of 1,180% in 30 years, or 39.33% annual growth rate.

{Annual Population Growth Rate = [(640-50)/50 x 100]÷30 = 39.33%}

That's scary stuff, a doubling time (Rule of 70) of 18 years.

However, I applied the national average household size to this community because that's the size that they gave me when asked about their own observations/expectations.

That's only a microcosm of PNG so it may not be very applicable to other communities in the country, let alone for the national average.

However, if our national population growth rate is even one tenth of that small community household estimate (3.933% pa), then our doubling time is 17.8 years.

If our annual growth rate is one fifteenth (2.622% pa) of that estimate then our population may double in 26.7 years.

That last figure appears in line with previous estimates from census data and perhaps demonstrates how desktop analysis with the best of intentions may still go astray.

Nevertheless, from using the small community example it's reasonable to suggest that maybe we should "expect the best but plan for the worst" until we obtain direct and incontrovertible evidence of the actual size of our population.

Corney Korokan Alone

This is some shoddy desktop research posing as rigorous study.

Such nonsense must be kindly ignored for the ridiculous distractions it is craving for.

Try another trick. This is not cutting it.

Bernard Corden

I can distinctly remember Phil the Greek stating that lower class families should be limited to two children, yet he sired four that we know of.

What happens when someone's dog decides to shit on your front lawn?

"More law, less Justice" - Cicero

Kindin Ongugo

I have to agree with this report, at least the message with over-population and issues connected with it.

PNG is just too overpopulated for its ability to feed its people.

We can not only see but also feel the pains that come with having too many useless people roaming the streets and villages.

The government needs to take drastic actions to halt this man-made tsunami.

I offer 2 suggestions here:

1. Tax incentives for couples with 3 or less children.

2. Permanent sterilisation for the two unmarried people involved with a pregnancy.

This will have to include polygamous marriages which usually start as extra-marital affairs resulting in pregnancy.

Indonesia passed a law yesterday having sex outside of marriage illegal.

We can do something similar.

Manuel Hetzel

There are certainly many issues around the estimation of the PNG population. The lack of recent high quality census data is the major underlying problem.

However, reporting with catchy headlines on an unpublished study that nobody can objectively verify is counter-productive.

It is unclear what purpose it serves. It is worth listening to Maholopa Laveil on ABC Pacific Beat and put it all in perspective.


I suggest we get excited once (and if) the study is published and we can compare findings with other data sources (of which there are a few, e.g. Demographic and Health Survey, Malaria Indicator Surveys, etc).

Thanks for that helpful intervention, Manuel. As for headlines, so long as readers mosy on to address the story they signpost, this old editor is happy enough - KJ

Duncan Green

Where did the '19m' in the headline come from? 17m is bad enough.....

Fixed now, Duncan. Editor failed Leaving Certificate maths - KJ

Robert Forster

This is seismic. Something like being a parent and now knowing how many children you have. Or a householder and being unaware of the number of people living in your home.

As the article itself makes clear, it is impossible for a government to oversee its domestic affairs effectively if it understands itself to be acting on behalf of 10 million people when the real figure might be 17.

Unrecognised strains between actual population and both available living space and food production resource could help to explain the extreme social volatility so obvious in highland regions especially.

Does this mean an urgent, and accurate, cross-check census is required? And if so how will it be done?

Immediately before independence PNG was home to less than four million people and few doubt the accuracy of this figure because government's census activity at the time was regular, controlled, and effective.

Ross Wilkinson

Perhaps this will ensure that the PNG government gets the message about the importance of regular and accurate Census undertakings and make adequate provision in the budget for this to happen.

John Kuri

Well there you go... it's going to spill out onto the streets as it already has in some towns and districts.

When will the state engage in sustainable measures like creating employment opportunities for youth who comprise half of PNG's population?

The level of crime is unreported just like the population figures.

This blow out in the population size is scary and will result in social upheaval regardless of the success of any investment conference in Australia.

People are suffering here in PNG due to lack of opportunities. Those that do exist are only for a minute fraction of the population which is not enough to drive PNG economy forward.

Bernard Corden

How many bush births are unregistered?

Many children have no birth certificates and are unaware of their date of birth.

They are born in a bush haus, where kaikai and betel nut are considered much more necessary than getting a birth certificate for about K100 at a local government office.

I know one lady at 9 Mile in Lae who recently delivered her baby at home at dusk.

She was in an adjoining bedroom with a razor blade and lit candle while her family and other wantoks chatted outside.

They entered the bedroom to find a new born baby boy crying on a dirty mattress beneath a tattered mosquito net.

She has six other children and all but one were born at home in a village haus without any government or hospital records.

In a nation with vast mineral resources and surrounded by seas full of fish, vaccinations and pikinini shots and a decent education remain sadly neglected.

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