BANGKOK, Dec 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An El Niño-related drought and frost have triggered severe food and water shortages in Papua New Guinea's highlands, prompting the European Commission to more than double its assistance to the Pacific island nation.
The warming of the Pacific Ocean due to the El Nino weather system is causing drought and other extreme weather, affecting millions of people across parts of the world.
Prime Minister Peter O'Neill in August said El Niño may bring on the worst drought in 20 years in Papua New Guinea, which is home to more than 7 million people who mostly rely on their own crops for food.
Papua New Guinea's government estimates that three in seven people in the country are affected by the drought, and that up to 400,000 are suffering a severe lack of food due to crop failure, according to the European Commission's Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).
"Usually year-round they grow sweet potatoes for food, and they harvest from their gardens, but now they have lost everything," said Bernard Jaspers Faijer, ECHO's rapid response coordinator for the Asia-Pacific, who visited Papua New Guinea earlier this month.
"In one distict there is a lack of food because they lost everything in their garden, and they've eaten their stores."
In some places, people are forced to walk up to three hours to fetch water because their creeks and streams have dried up, Jaspers Faijer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
ECHO already provides 630,000 euros ($690,000) in assistance to Papua New Guinea, but will give an additional 650,000 euros ($700,000) to be spent on food aid and projects to boost water supply, including drilling wells for public use, Jaspers Faijer said.
The new projects are expected to begin mid-January and be completed by the end of 2016, he added.
"We will focus on hospitals, clinics and schools so the facilities can continue working. We saw a few places where they struggled to keep hospital going and had to truck in water," he said.
ECHO said even if rainfall returns to normal levels soon and people resume planting, they would have to wait six months for the next harvest.
El Niño is predicted to peak in the first three months of 2016, and the situation could deteriorate substantially, it said.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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