By Eric Tlozek in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea's government defends its drought relief program in the face of growing frustration from people in affected areas.
The Papua New Guinea Government has defended its drought relief program in the face of growing frustration from people in affected areas.
Dry conditions from the prevailing El Nino weather pattern are putting more than 2 million people at risk of famine and disease in PNG.
Unconfirmed reports suggest a number of people have already died from things like drinking contaminated water and eating unfamiliar "bush foods".
The deputy-secretary of the PNG prime minister's department, Trevor Meauri, says the government has spent almost 13 million Kina ($7 million) on relief supplies and deliveries to the worst-affected areas of the country.
"It's a very difficult task to cover the entire length and breadth of this country, but we're getting there, we're making sure things are flowing to the places affected," he said.
Papua New Guinea's National Disaster Office has categorised areas according to how badly the dry conditions, and a frost in the highlands, have affected them.
Mr Meauri says the government has prioritised relief to the worst affected areas and is relying on district administrations to distribute it fairly.
"We're trying our best to make sure every place that's affected is getting some sort of supply," he said.
"We are responding in a way that we make sure the immediately affected receive some sort of relief supply, then we're working through the categories the disaster office has categorised."
But people in many areas are complaining that relief has not reached them.
"If it's coming in, then we can't see it," said Heather Marai, who lives in Chimbu province in the PNG Highlands.
"If the government is helping us, then we can't see it."
Highlands MP Kerenga Kua, the former PNG attorney-general, convinced his district administration to divert its funding for road projects towards buying and distributing food relief.
"The Government might get around to it, it might not," he said.
"There's never any certainty when the Government is involved. Right now the prospect of the Government helping is a bit remote."
His electorate of Sina Sina-Yongomugl in Chimbu province has spent 2 million kina ($957,258) on rice, flour and cooking oil for more than 14,000 families.
It will take 13 days for the food to be delivered to villages in the rugged and mountainous district.
But villagers say it's a welcome relief, because their own food supplies had run out.
"The sun came and dried up all the sweet potatoes and other vegetables so we are just feeding on whatever food is supplied to us from outside," one lady from Parua village said.
The PNG Government estimates providing ongoing food relief will cost about 175 million kina ($91 million) for the next six to 12 months.
That money is yet to be budgeted.
The government is also yet to accept offers of help from international aid groups and big donors like Australia and New Zealand.
Roy Trivedy, from the United Nations Development Agency in PNG, said the government has asked for technical assistance, but not food and relief.
"So far government has asked us to help with some of the assessment work, they've asked us to help with water and sanitation," he said.
Mr Meauri said the government believes it can still handle the relief supply itself.
"The reason why we said that we would do the disaster relief supplies initially ourselves is because we are able to do it now," Mr Meauri said.
"The limited funding we have, we are putting it to good use. We are making sure that relief supplies are rolled out.
"The situation is worse, the drought situation is worse. It's not catastrophic. It's not a famine."
Most agencies agree that people are not yet starving to death, but Care International's deputy country director, Blossum Gilmour, said surveys showed they are running out of food.
"We found that people are eating less with every meal and were eating fewer meals and they said they were going to run completely out of food within four to six weeks," she said.
The dry weather is causing more than just food shortages.
Traditional water sources are drying up, and there's increasing contamination of those that remain.
Despite multiple reports, the government has not confirmed any deaths due to the dry conditions.
It said local hospitals are still investigating the reports.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation
- © ABC