Otago Presbyterian Climate Change Refugee

by Ani Flannagan

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This year, I worked in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), as a teacher in a mining town that generates 18% of PNG’s GDP, 25.7% of the country’s exports, and pays about US$553 million tax. The town is one of the rainiest places on the planet. Rainfall is 8 to 12 metres per year, averaging 684.3mm per month.

In normal months, the rains pour down, regular as afternoon clockwork, moderating temperatures and allowing food to grow quickly. Water is always clean and abundant. But our western living has affected the El Niño system, which has in turn affected the Highlands’ rainfall patterns, temperatures and crops.

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The El Niño trend has never been this bad, will last at least till February 2016 and will remove NZ$1.2 billion from the country’s economy. It will also increase the probability of persistent droughts on the Highlands, exacerbating the difficult modern and ancient lives of people who live in the mountains, already under the strain of corruption and mismanagement.

Drought conditions have now destroyed 80% of the food supply in the Eastern Highlands, Simbu and the Western Highlands. 40% of these populations are contending with severe food shortages and in towns that still have food there are price increases of 200 to 400%. Chronic shortages affect a larger geographical area, too, including islands in the Provinces of Manus, New Ireland and Milne Bay, where people have to drink brackish water.

At the same time, the Highlands are facing challenges of historically impossible frosts harming subsistent farming. Temperatures in the mountains have been plunging at night. Many of these villages, down to 1450m, experience many successive frosts that damage the growing cycle. There are glaciers up in the Highlands — which is incredible because it’s so close to the equator — but these frosts are lower, harder and more frequent. For a people unused to cold this sometimes results in death. As Kiwi farmers of lettuce, kumara, zucchini and broccoli would understand, one frost to subsistence gardens could equal mass starvation. People migrating through the country away from the affected areas will encounter regional diseases against which they have developed no immunity, such as malaria and typhoid.

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Map from Air Niugini

PNG is one of the most species-diverse areas on the planet — 5% of the world’s creatures are represented — and these conditions are destroying their habitat. Madang’s famous bats have decimated that town’s trees. Hungry people are likely to eat their way through remaining tree kangaroo populations. These animals are normally protected. Likewise, how many echidnas will be left in a year? Bird of Paradise numbers have been in steep decline over the last decade but this El Niño will put more pressure on the dwindling population. All Birds of Paradise are protected by the Fauna Act of 1966–73, but this rule appears to be often broken — the bird’s feathers are used as cultural decoration. Although these animals have iconic status this dry weather will be hard on them. People will trap them with a more desperate vigour, and their own food sources will become more scarce.

Back in June, I was on holiday in Auckland. It was chilly and grey, and I looked forward to being back in the tropical jungle. But before I left for that holiday, the climatic variations of El Niño were hinting at us. There was some debate about whether we would need to shut down the town when the water ran out, in September. The El Niño cycle affected the region badly in 1997 and around the neighbourhood we discussed the outcomes of that experience, when Australian military and non-government agencies assisted 300,000 people who were in severe stages of food scarcity and even the French contributed food.

People in the pub were wondering if they would have to clear out because of El Niño — they wondered if they would still have jobs and how many would be kept on. Every week the conversation became more often about the water levels in the Fly River, and where the rain was landing. It was confusing. It rained but there was not enough rain, and not in the right places. We said ‘Look, there’s rain’. But if it fell 15 kilometres in the wrong direction, it would not go into the Fly River.

Because rain water was not reaching the correct catchment I thought a shut- down was likely. When you are used to getting 8 metres per year, if it drops to 2 metres — that’s a lot for some places — it’s not enough. Other people where I worked chewed their way through what it would mean for their lives if they did need to leave. I took it with much humour and suggested they earn plenty enough to survive a few months’ unemployment if that happened, and they couldn’t expect too much sympathy.

When the water shortage became severe two months earlier than expected, obvious disruptions began with vehicles no longer being used for private use. Without water, there’s no hydro-electricity, which meant the town burnt off a couple of hundred thousand litres of diesel per day. Because water levels had dropped supplies could not be delivered by barge.

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For weeks, the ‘illegal’ settlements had been running out of fuel. People used to walk for days to get to pockets of land just outside the township, where they would build or rent make-shift dwellings out of found timber and tarpaulins, near a stream, with just one spigot for many many houses. They could try to find work and better opportunities such as gardening work, or cleaning. They would then be able to send money and educational supplies back to their villages and families. They could also access the town’s services, such as the hospital and maternity clinics, which are some of the best in the country. My female colleagues who lived there paid high rents and would stay until security forces with guns moved them on.

While I was away, the first step our town took to reduce pressure on resources was to stop people returning from holiday. Imagine heading out for break, and being told ‘hey, don’t come back’. Workers, wives, children, prevented from returning to their homes, indefinitely. In this case, neighbours and friends pack up your house and send your possessions on.

The shut-down was fully underway a good month before September. People who had been invited for work were told not to come. The workforce of The 4000 staff and contractors in the workforce were sent home on diminished pay, given a golden handshake, or plain fired. All workers and their families were flown back to their home provinces or countries.

After three weeks away I returned to a town that was noticeably quieter and emptier. People remaining looked seriously lost. No football teams, no sports, community facilities closed.

I read in the paper that at other more rural schools in the regions around us, students left school for an extended lunch time to forage for their own water in the jungle. Weeks after that those schools and related hospitals were shut down from lack of water. This is not normal for them, and it is not fun. Lakes like Chambri will go dry. The remaining water will be over used, will get polluted and will be the mechanism of disease transfer.

As water in the Fly River receded, stocks in the shop also dwindled. Rice and flour disappeared from the supermarket shelves. This made for exciting and fun dashes with colleagues in the school bus, up to the shop to grab the last groceries before someone else got them.

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No water, no boats, no petrol. Dash 8 aircraft prioritised flying fuel into the town as barges became stranded on the drying river. Pre-emptive policies were written and acted on: security posts expanded, alcohol sales were banned and the three restaurants and pubs were closed.

Papua New Guinea’s deforestation rate is 1.4% per annum and on the hills around my town, this was swift and visible over those last few months. It used to be prohibited to plant gardens on those hills because of the potential for landslips. But before I left, in the first week of August, I saw the jungle hacked down in large swathes, gardens quickly planted, on flat land and steep hills. Then, because of the drought conditions, the crops and banana trees did not take. They failed. It was amazing, the nakedness extending along the hill faces — every week larger.

I feel like a climate change refugee because I didn’t choose to leave my bed, my bathroom, my lounge, kitchen, sofa, and porch, which would occasionally have quite nice social gatherings on it, but more often quiet times reading and nodding hello to the neighbours. Those neighbours also did not choose to gather up their possessions, gather up their children, take their last pay packet and heave as much as they were allowed, or that they could afford and manage, on to last minute planes. (It was worse and more desperate in the weeks after I left. People mobbing planes like they did leaving Saigon in the past. And the prices for flights were way too expensive for many people.)

As I was packing, choosing what to take, what to send on later, and what to leave for myself on return, or for the thieves and looters if they got there before me, I looked at a calendar given to me by my sister-in-law. With little pictures of serene New Zealand, the soft dusty yellow afternoon light fell across it and I dreamed of explorers discovering this abandoned town hidden lost in the jungle, 400 years from now. Like an engineers’ town Angkor Wat. But by then our 800 metres up would be beach front property. Boat people will land on what may by then be arid, sandy desert.

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I gave the contents of my fridge and cupboards to the street’s security guards, a teaching assistant, and Jenny the school librarian. I bought my neighbour’s cleaner Alina a huge machete to help her get home, keep her and her kids safe on their walk, and lastly to be the main gardening tool when clearing and breaking the ground for planting. She explained a lot to me about the family and tribal dynamics she and her two children would be returning to. And it was going to be tough. Add to that famine.

Over these weeks 30 families per day were flown out. When I flew out the Fly River level was 4 metres. I think 5 metres is the lowest that is comfortably operable and by late August it was down to 2.5 metres. By early September Radio New Zealand headlines were warning the ‘Strongest ever El Nino headed for NZ’. But by then, our Cloudlands village was a ghost town with very few pedestrians. All vehicles, except the most business-essential, were forlornly parked.

If flying out wasn’t an financially available option, people walked themselves over hundreds of kilometres over three to ten days to other parts of New Guinea, to be with their families and wantoks. Some spent their money to get their children to safety but themselves stayed to face the food shortage. Carol had two children with her but could not afford the flights for the kids and herself so flew her children to grandparents on the other side of the country.

About 20,000 people left our town, but throughout the three affected provinces, I think 100,000 people will be moving.

The difficulty of traversing the mountains of New Guinea’s Highland region can not be overstated. Teams of prospecting geologists sometimes report that they can manage only 5 kilometres per day. One international trekking agency suggests the area as ‘suitable only for masochists and Israeli Paratroopers’. Long rock faces, slippery mud, deep layers of vicious foliage debris, streams, and precipices all describe the Highland region.

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At its widest point the region crosses 700 kilometres from Pacific Ocean to the Arafura Sea. Two-thirds of the Australian facing side is marshy, tropical sago swamps, which pilots describe as boggy broccoli.

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The Pacific Wewak third is beaches and palm trees gently rising through farm land to become large coffee growing hills at 900 metres. The final push, from hills to peaks of over 3000 meters covers less than 50 kilometres, is seriously steep. Erosion and tectonic movement create geological structures like the Hindenburg Wall. I could see it from the air on my way to work. It’s astounding and I loved it.

Those on the move will need to be welcomed, fed and guided as they move through the country. If they flee to their home villages, migrants may find themselves unwelcomed by jealous brothers-in-law, or neighbours who have claimed their land for the years they’ve been away. Villages that were somewhat stable will now need to absorb the migrants from the town I lived in and from all the other affected places. The numbers keep growing. Around the Pacific 4 million are affected and the economic and health costs are staggering as El Niño refugees join other schools, live with extended families, look for housing, and look for work.

The 1.3 million badly affected Papua New Guineans are our neighbours. When you look at the scale of what is happening to Papua New Guinea’s provinces and economy you must consider the environmental stresses and its impacts are only going to increase. New Zealand will have to assist, this and other countries, to a far greater humanitarian level.

My climate change experience happened very quickly. I expected it to last until April 2016 at the latest. In February, it should rain, I thought, then a month’s buffer — to get things restarted. Sometime March-ish I hoped I would be back at work and life there would return to some version of normal. But that is not the case. In early December the news came through that the school would not reopen. There was also talk about the mine permanently shutting down — but I think they will try to continue it. There’s plenty of gold and copper in the hills — of a high grade — but it is difficult to get to.

After 30 years, the school and town structure has been shifted to fly-in-fly-out. No families will live there except the local tribe’s families. The government will provide them with a primary and secondary school.

This year, in the Pacific, El Niño is expected to last till February. When yours comes along, it may last longer.

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(Thanks to geography research assistants Kat Murphy & Dave Patterson.)


‘Otago’ is a moderate ‘nowhere’ part of the world, in southern Aotearoa New Zealand. An entirely ordinary and unfamous place — like most of the world, only important to those who inhabit it. A place that also that feels safe and far from turmoil.

Birds of Paradise protection, from Birdlife InternationalThis species is protected by law in Papua New Guinea (Fauna Act of 1966–73), although this is routinely not enforced (M. van den Bergh in litt. 2014). It is officially illegal for non-citizens to take birds-of-paradise without a permit from the Department of Environment & Conservation and to kill birds-of-paradise with anything other than traditional means (Beehler in litt. to van den Bergh 2009, Sekhran & Miller 1996). While all Birds of Paradise are protected by the Papua New Guinea Fauna Act (1968), the enforcement of this protection is challenging, considering that over 93% of land ownership rests with traditional custodians (M. Supuma in litt. 2012). In addition, there is a distinct lack of funds to support enforcement officers to monitor the trade of the species.

BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Paradisaea rudolphi.



El Niño is one phase of a naturally occurring global climate cycle known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). El Niño disrupts normal weather patterns across much of the globe and can lead to intense storms in some places and droughts in others

Chandler, Jo GuardianPapua New Guinea villagers eat clay and toxic mushrooms as severe drought hits’ (Wednesday 2 December 2015)

…people were now camping in the bush to escape the sun, that garden crops had rotted, and yam suckers for the next season’s crop were not sprouting.

Animals are beginning to die.

A Uniting Church-funded investigation into the effects of the drought, drawing on visits to 30 villages scattered through the highlands, found that staple sweet potato crops had been decimated due to the combined effects of drought and frost since the El Niño began in April.

…“Water-borne diseases can pose serious risk as most people are drinking, bathing and doing their laundries in the rivers.”

Fish stocks have gone as ponds have dried up.

The PNG government has pledged emergency aid but the reports indicate that, despite early warnings, in many of the surveyed communities the response has so far been slow, insufficient, or non-existent.

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A family leaves their high altitude village of Kandep in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. They are walking with their pigs and dog to stay with relatives in a lower altitude and less drought-affected community. Photograph: Matthew Kanua/United Church PNG

Connors, Adam Pacific BeatLocal official says ‘everything gone’ as freak frost hits PNG’s Enga province’ (19 Aug 2015, audio now expired)

[Enga province administrator Dr Samson Amean] said the worst frost to hit the province in 40 years has directly affected 300,000 people.

“There has been a major disaster, all the food gardens lost in affected areas,” he said.

“Our basic food being sweet potato, or tuber, and all the vines are destroyed.”

“Vegetables in the higher altitudes like cabbage, lettuce, English potato, all that is gone.”

The governor of neighbouring Southern Highlands province, William Powi, has also declared a state of emergency.

With most of the highlands at about 2,000 metres above sea level, Dr Amean said people have started moving to the lower altitudes where they have relatives.

In East New Britain province, drought has led to more reliable water sources drying up.

“I’ve never seen anything like it here in the highlands,” said Blossum Gilmour, assistant country director of CARE International in PNG.

“But we know the same thing happened during the last devastating El Niño experience in 1997.

“PNG is especially vulnerable given that around 80 per cent of food consumed in the country is grown in this region.”

Press Release: Oxfam 14 December 2015

Papua New Guinea is bearing the brunt of El Niño in the Pacific region, with the country’s National Disaster Committee reporting that up to 3 million people are at risk as crop failures force many people to cut back to eating just one meal a day. People are walking for hours to find water and face increased risk of disease due to poor hygiene.

The New Zealand Government has recently committed NZD$2.5 million to support Papua New Guinea and other countries in the Pacific to prepare for and mitigate the effects of El Niño.

Climate Change & Women

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Women & Gender Constituency. ‘A Reality Check on the Paris Agreement: Women Demand Climate Justice’ 12 December 2015.

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Members of the Women & Gender Constituency come from various groups around the globe. Their Reality Check is a vital statement. You can read it all (and join the group) here, but here are some excerpts–

As the Women and Gender Constituency we came to this process asking one question: what is the purpose of a global climate agreement if not to save people and the planet?

We see that the world wants hope, that we want to congratulate ourselves for moving forward with this process, but leaders, we are here for a reality check. This agreement fundamentally does not address the needs of the most vulnerable countries, communities and people of the world. It fails to address the structures of injustice and inequality which have caused the climate crisis and hold the historical polluters sufficiently to account.

…only certain segments of our population are meant to be served by this agreement.

Governments maintained their commitment to corporations over people and signaled opportunities for profit to be made from crisis.

We know we need to stay below 1.5 degrees for a chance at survival, and we recognize the importance of seeing this goal in the final Paris Agreement. But seeing this goal on paper is not enough. We demand it in actions as the proof of the full commitment to that goal, not a vague aspiration. If not significantly ramped up, countries’ collective emissions plans lead us to the prospect of a 3.2–3.7 degree rise.

Furthermore, the Paris Agreement served to undermine the concept of international solidarity — a founding principle of the UN that requires differentiation amongst states in a way that should lead to redistribution and shared prosperity.

It is clear that in Paris we have not found the political will to make the Paris Agreement the platform the world truly needs to tackle this urgent challenge.

We will not be silenced from telling the truth to power, to highlight the lack of ambition and injustice in this agreement.

We will never give up on our beautiful planet. We will never give up on our demand for climate justice.

This agreement has failed to embrace and respond to this moment for urgent and just transitions, but we have not. We have used this space of international policy-making to raise our voices and embolden our movements.

Together, we will continue to challenge injustice for the protection of the people and the planet: Another world is possible!

Marian Evans. Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.

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