By Dr Amanda Watson and Dan Jorgensen. Amanda is a research consultant with the Australian Government's PNG Economic and Public Sector Program, managed by Coffey. Dan is a social anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada who has conducted research with the Telefolmin people of PNG's Sepik headwaters.

As the drought starts to bite, PNG communities with a water supply system are more food secure than others (Photo Dan Jorgensen)

Papua New Guinea is experiencing a drought that may become more devastating than the worst in its recorded history in 1997. While the PNG Government is working hard to assess and respond to the drought through its National Disaster Centre, many of the challenges facing drought response remain the same, or have become progressively worse, since 1997. However, there is one potential game changer present now that was missing in 1997: widespread access to mobile phone service.

This piece explores how mobile phones could be used to help drought-related communication this time around.

What drought means in PNG

Communities in PNG are vulnerable to a range of natural disasters including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, flooding and tsunamis. But this year it is drought, worsened by an El Niño weather pattern, that is exposing communities to the greatest risk. Frosts have also damaged crops, further decreasing food security. In some areas, tribal conflicts may be further exacerbating the situation. Distribution of emergency food aid is underway in the worst-hit areas, and water rationing has begun in the capital, Port Moresby. Another risk is increased disease prevalence, particularly water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The situation is expected to get worse, with dry conditions predicted to last into 2016.

In 1997, as many as 40% of PNG people were affected by food shortages. In response, the government, assisted by donors, mobilised a major humanitarian response, while communities pooled resources to import more food supplies. Disease prevalence increased due to limited, poor quality water sources, as well as mosquitoes reaching higher-than-usual altitudes. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has suggested the current drought may become worse than that of 1997.

Differences between 1997 and today

As has been outlined by Mike Bourke in The Worst Frost and Drought in Papua New Guinea since 1997: What Happens Next?, several things have changed since 1997. Road, airstrip and transport networks have deteriorated. On the positive side, the national government now has a much stronger agency, the National Disaster Centre, which is conducting an assessment of the extent of the problem and coordinating relief efforts (even though resources may be lacking in some provinces). The National Disaster Centre has been supported in recent years by the UN Development Programme, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the Australian Government. The National Agricultural Research Institute is also monitoring the drought in some localities and providing three communities with telecommunications resources.

Another major change lies in communication technologies. In the 1997 drought, communities had little access to modern devices. HF/VHF radios, the main means of communication, were largely confined to government or mission stations, and were sometimes unreliable. Lack of coordination and poor information often hampered attempts to deal with the crisis in a timely fashion. Now, though, widespread mobile phone network coverage (triggered by the introduction of competition into the sector in 2007), means vital information gathering could be undertaken remotely. Mobile phones also present an opportunity to distribute information back to communities, and mobile technology is referred to in the country's disaster plans.

Relief efforts, data collection and use of mobile phones

Many assessment tools are being used to collect data about the drought. One such tool is a two-page rapid assessment questionnaire designed by Mike Bourke and Bryant Allen which can be completed by field officers when visiting communities to ascertain local resilience and vulnerability to drought. This tool was recently used by Dan Jorgensen to obtain information from seven communities in the Tabubil area (the Telefomin District of Sandaun Province and adjacent areas of the North Fly District in Western Province). Results showed substantial variations between communities in terms of the drought's impact and their responses.

Despite these differences, broad patterns have also emerged. One is that the effects on crops in the region are most severe at lower elevations, where temperatures are higher. This is in contrast with more widely reported instances from Highlands valleys further east, where much of the concern has been on killing frosts at higher elevations. A second finding is that an early manifestation of the drought's impact is the rise of insect and other pest infestations; these occur well before garden failure.

As has been indicated elsewhere, numerous actions can be taken to mitigate the potentially devastating impacts of the drought. Communities could work to address issues locally, and it seems likely that communities with basic water supply systems (such as small reservoirs and gravity-fed pipelines), could be substantially more food-secure than others. In the meantime, assistance to local communities is being organised by the national government, other levels of government, businesses, churches, diaspora groups, international non-government organisations, and international aid donors. Australia has for many years worked to assist PNG with disaster preparedness and stands ready to assist in any drought response.

Data collection is an important part of a concerted approach. Detailed, location-specific data is essential to help identify the places where people are most in need of relief. Typically, much data collection is done in the field by teams travelling around the country. This will remain a valuable way to gather a range of information, including people's perceptions and perhaps water, crop and soil samples.

But some types of data could be collected remotely, which is faster and more efficient than on foot. For example, a series of key questions could be sent out via SMS to village leaders on a daily or weekly basis. This would permit a fine-grained understanding of local situations in real time, especially in remote areas. Where responses are of concern, follow-up phone interviews could elicit more detailed information.

While this tactic would be only a small part of a multi-pronged approach to supporting drought-affected communities, the availability of mobile phone reception is the most significant change in rural communities since the 1997 drought. It should be harnessed to good effect to rapidly disseminate and gather information over a wide area.

The authors thank Tom Hogan, Richard Guy, Emily Flowers and Mike Bourke for valuable input. The views expressed here are those of the authors and not of the Australian Government.