Building Resilience in Papua New Guinea: One Person at a Time

Melanesia, Papua New Guinea: Islanders bid farewell to IOM staff as they leave the Carteret Islands. Photo: IOM / Muse Mohammed

Port Moresby — Located in the turbulent Pacific “ Ring of Fire,” the island nation of Papua New Guinea is the 11th most disaster-prone country in the world, according to the WorldRiskReport published annually by Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft and the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University (UNU-EHS). The country faces risk of recurring floods, earthquakes, drought, volcanic eruptions and, increasingly, rising sea levels.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, focuses its work in Papua New Guinea on preparing communities vulnerable to displacement to become more resilient to the impact of these frequent natural disasters.

“We promote a culture of safety within the community by supporting grassroots approaches that promote ownership of disaster prevention and preparedness efforts. Communities assess local disaster risks and develop their own mitigation measures,” explained Wonesai Sithole*, IOM’s former Emergency and Disaster Management Coordinator in Papua New Guinea, who worked with at-risk communities for five years, preparing them for possible disasters and environmental impact.

IOM works at national and sub-national levels in the country to strengthen the coordination and management of displacement Care Centres, develop early warning systems and prepare for possible emergency responses. Locally, the Organization works directly with at-risk communities to build resilience.

For Sithole, the key to successful disaster risk reduction lies with individuals. “Preparedness at the individual-level will translate into community action. I have seen remarkable improvements over relatively short periods of time with this approach,” he said.

For example, after participating in IOM’s disaster risk reduction programme, the people of Harange Village in Oro Province, initiated their own disaster response during the 2016 drought.

“Villagers planted drought tolerant crops, enhanced conservation farming techniques to increase yields on small plots and created a sustainable water supply to be more resilient when drought occurs, and thereby reduce the need for emergency response,” Sithole added.

When reducing the risks and assessing the aftermath of disasters in Papua New Guinea, IOM consults all socio-economic groups, particularly focusing on women and girls, widows, people living with disabilities, youth, elderly and the displaced — reinforcing efforts of the Sustainable Development Goal to ‘leave no one behind.’

“In Labu Tale, for example, women used to walk four kilometres everyday just to fetch water. They have been doing it for generations. When they sat down and evaluated the risks that affect them, they singled out the lack of access to water during floods and other crises to be a major challenge.”

After consulting community members, IOM supported them in designing and constructing a simple gravity-fed water system extending four kilometres — and thereby more efficiently bring water to the 800 villagers of Labu Tale.

IOM’s inclusive and participatory approach to disaster risk reduction ensures that community responses to disaster risk are localized, sustainable and practical.

Through working alongside other communities, IOM has replicated this project in three other villages near Labu Tale, bringing water to nearly 4,000 residents as well as the local school and clinic.

“We are not trying to target one community, but to start something that evolves and moves from one village to another. We see this as the only way to build a sustainable system and simplify disaster risk reduction,” Sithole added.

Sithole, who began his career in his homeland of Zimbabwe, believes that mitigating risks associated with disasters requires localization and practicality.

“I am very action-oriented. Many people unfortunately treat disaster risk reduction like a talk show. Talking is fine — but you need to engage the whole community to make a difference. Translating the aspiration of safety into reality has been our objective in Papua New Guinea.”

Sithole believes that by adopting a positive attitude and focusing on what is achievable, significant progress can be made in disaster risk management.

“I am not worried about what is not working or the challenges. I look at what is possible. This is the spirit that people need to adopt. Regardless of any state of hopelessness, every situation brings opportunities that can be built on. Those are the sparks with which you can start a fire.”

IOM’s global work on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) contributes to advancing mobility-based strategies in efforts to reduce risk and build resilience, in line with States’ efforts to implement the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030.

The Organization’s programming seeks to reduce disaster-induced displacement by i) harnessing the dimensions of mobility in prevention and preparedness; ii) mitigate the impacts of displacement through effective response; iii) strengthen resilience by building back better in recovery and reconstruction; and iv) expand and strengthen partnerships that incorporate mobility in global efforts to reduce risk and strengthen resilience.

To learn more about IOM’s disaster risk reduction programming, please click here.

For more information on IOM’s February 2018 earthquake response in PNG, please click here. To learn more about IOM’s disaster risk reduction work with PNG communities please go here.

*Mr Sithole is now IOM’s Chief of Mission in Timor-Leste.