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June 27, 2022
Emergency Health Life News Papua New Guinea

NRI Commentary: Forgotten, The Vulnerable Populations In Papua New Guinea

by Dr. Esther Lavu & Chris Banga*


Every year July 11 is recognised as World Population Day, and it is observed to inform the world about the issues that affect its population. This year marks the recognition of vulnerable populations in an emergency context.

What does this mean? This is when the population affected by emergencies such as wars, natural disasters, and social problems faces higher risks of contracting diseases, facing violence, hunger or general homelessness. 

The devastating effects lead to shifts from normal lives to challenging conditions. Vulnerability can also come as a natural and unavoidable part of life or it can be created and sustained by social arrangemen’s.

This commentary highlights some issues that make populations vulnerable from the impact of natural disasters in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and concludes with ways to address these vulnerable situations.

The context of being vulnerable or populations at risk

The majority of the country’s citizens live in the rural areas and they spend most of their time in subsistence gardening and fishing or other economic activities to sustain their livelihoods. They have access to safe drinking water, food to eat, and a place to sleep. Their way of life changes drastically when a natural disaster occurs in their area and what is normal and available is no longer there to sustain their existence.

Second, there is a high chance of natural disasters occurring in PNG because it is situated along a volatile seismic strip called the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’. This makes PNG susceptible to natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. Other disasters that also occur in PNG include flooding, landslides, tropical cyclones and king tides. When natural disasters occur, sometimes the local communities that are affected adapt to these conditions and are able to sustain their livelihood. In some cases, life is never the same, and these are the vulnerable populations in emergency situations.

The conditions that confront the affected populations are likely to bring about undesirable disorder. The immediate needs are food, shelter, water, and sanitation environment. When the essential needs are not immediately met, the affected populations face massive risks such as contracting diseases largely associated with diarrhoeal diseases. In such situations, the children and  the  elderly are  the  most  affected  groups  in  the  vulnerable  populations  and they require special targeting and attention.                

Vulnerable populations in PNG

In PNG’s history, some population groups have been affected by natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, flooding, tsunamis, king tides and landslides. Of all these, the 1998 Tsunami of Aitape in the West Sepik province is the deadliest on record. The tsunami devastated the four villages of Sisano, Warupu, Arop and Malol. It was reported at the time that more than 2,000 people lost their lives.

The after effect was that 10,000 people survived – they were clearly the vulnerable populations affected by this natural disaster. Many of them were forced to relocate. The impact of the Tsunami and its aftermath was devastating for those that experienced the disaster. While many have moved on with their lives, others have yet to make that bold decision to make a move. PNG needs to know these people.

The Tavurvur and Manam volcanoes are PNG’s most active volcanoes. Mount Tavurvur, erupted in 2014 and it also recorded previous eruptions in 2013, 2011, 2010, 2006, 2005 and 2002. The major and notable eruption occurred in 1994 and affected some people living in East New Britain province. It was a devastating time and year in which people lost their food gardens and their homes. They also had no access to safe drinking water. Evacuation programs were developed and implemented which assisted people to recover and make new homes away from their original and ethnic areas. At first, there was resistance towards moving to new allocated areas. Nevertheless, affected people eventually accepted to move as the land was packed with basic services of water and sewerage system. 

The Manam group in Madang Province experienced a similar devastation in 2004 when the Manam Island volcano erupted. The volcano eruptions forced the evacuation of Manam Islanders and closure of public services. Their situation is far from being a success story. Residents were evacuated to care centres on the mainland where they have been living for over nine years. Almost 10,000 people were evacuated from the island. These people needed assistance and were forced to find their way in a new place. It is most likely that the population of the group has increased and many social issues may have also emerged as they struggle to live their lives – this is an example of a vulnerable population.


The natural disasters experienced in PNG occur unexpectedly, and nearly all leave devastating effects. The sudden change disrupts livelihood sources and the scale of disasters also determines the urgency to intervene in a very short time. This is when the question of how many people are affected is raised and often this answer is not available.

There is a need to compile the actual number of people at each geographic level so that when the need arises, the responsible authorities are planning with these basic numbers. Large government data collection undertakings have commenced in the country and this is one of many positive government responses.

Past experiences of natural disasters are essential in supporting new programs required for addressing issues such as shortage of food and water and lack of shelter faced by the vulnerable populations. Based on available basic population numbers, the programs that have been created for the purposes of addressing issues faced by the vulnerable population in emergency situations can be implemented with some success.

When PNG responds to these vulnerable populations in emergency situations, it will be the beginning of creating a society that is more responsive to the needs of all, and hence a society where no one will be neglected.


*Dr. Esther Lavu is a Senior Research Fellow and Chris Banga is a Cadet Researcher at the National Research Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute.

Source: National Research Intsitute 

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