‘Another kind of disaster’ looms in Papua New Guinea

This is home to about 600 people. A single, open shelter erected in a field. Two pit latrines hastily built by the side of a road. A polluted stream as the only source of water for drinking, washing and cooking.

Rose and her baby Austria have been living in this crowded shelter for weeks. © UNICEF/PNG-2018/JamesMepham

Some 400 children fled here with their families last month, when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake devastated their homes in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. But they haven’t escaped from danger yet.

“This morning we buried a three-year-old girl,” says Iso Putap, the Council Chief.

She had been suffering from acute watery diarrhoea — an increasing threat to the children living here with no access to sanitation.

Council Chief Iso Putap leads a camp of around 600 displaced people who urgently need more assistance. © UNICEF/PNG-2018/JamesMepham

It is easy to see why the Council Chief is worried. The shelter is extremely overcrowded with no division or privacy for girls, women and children. Food is scarce. Many food gardens were completely destroyed when the earthquakes triggered landslides. Those who still have gardens are too afraid to go anywhere near them. Families only have what’s left of some food delivered by the Government one week ago. And their polluted water source is a health disaster waiting to happen.

Maxin, 16, has become unwell from drinking and washing in the contaminated water supply. Iso Putap speaks to his community about the importance of safe water. © UNICEF/PNG-2018/JamesMepham

There are immediate needs for everything: safe water, soap, food, proper latrines and more shelter to house women and girls separately from the men.

Council Chief Putap isn’t just worried about the wellbeing of his community. He is also mourning the deaths of his ten-year-old daughter and 19-year-old niece who perished in the earthquake.

A huge boulder crashed into the family’s house and killed the girls as they slept.

“I should be at home mourning their deaths but I can’t do that properly because I also have to be here to try to help my people,” he tells UNICEF.
Barbara, 8, lost her elder sister and her cousin when a boulder struck their house. She has been living in difficult conditions at the makeshift camp with her father, Iso Putap, since 27 Feburary. © UNICEF/PNG-2018/JamesMepham

A UNICEF team has arrived at the camp along with members of Caritas and the Catholic Church to establish contacts, provide medical care and talk to families about serious health risks.

“If we don’t act now, in a couple of weeks, we will be dealing with another kind of disaster — the kind that requires medical attention for diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections and vaccine preventable diseases because of the living conditions here,” the team emphasises.

UNICEF staff provide oral rehydration salts to 20 young children who are suffering from diarrhoea and in urgent need of fluids. They also screen all of the children for signs of severe acute malnutrition.

But there is so much more to be done for children here in this makeshift shelter and in other camps of displaced people throughout affected communities.

Since the massive earthquake struck on 26 February, more than 100 tremors and widespread landslides have destroyed homes, schools and livelihoods. More than 125,000 children need urgent, life-saving assistance throughout the four provinces of Hela, Southern Highlands, Western Province and Enga.

This little packet will make a big impact for baby Austria. She is suffering from diarrhoea and in serious need of fluids but these rehydration salts — together with some clean water — will help her recover. © UNICEF/PNG-2018/JamesMepham

UNICEF is urgently working with partners and the Papua New Guinea Government to stop this emergency from spiralling into a deeper disaster for children.

Our teams are working to deliver vaccines, water purification tablets, hygiene kits and basic sanitation to prevent outbreaks of disease. We’re providing micronutrients and ready-to-use therapeutic food to help children recover from severe acute malnutrition. And we’re supporting child-friendly spaces where children can get psychosocial support to cope with the trauma of losing their homes and family members.

Parents and community leaders like Iso Putap have done everything they can to help children survive the earthquake and landslides. Now, they need our help to prevent a whole new disaster.

One-year-old Solina was has diarrhoea but a UNICEF doctor gives her rehydration salts and clean water to recover. UNICEF is also encouraging mothers to continue breastfeeding as the safest source of fluids and nutrition for babies in a crisis. © UNICEF/PNG-2018/JamesMepham

You can help reach more children with life-saving supplies by making a donation to UNICEF Australia’s emergency appeal.

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