BANGKOK, March 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After months of food and water shortages caused by drought and frost, Papua New Guinea is suffering floods and mudslides affecting 2,000 people living on a "razor's edge" after last year's lack of rain.
The El Niño-driven drought last year cut food production and left about 480,000 people facing critical shortages and in need of food aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Successive rains since early February have triggered floods and mudslides that have damaged or destroyed homes, food gardens, water sources, roads and bridges in several provinces, particularly in the highlands and coastal Momase region.
The floods and mudslides have affected about 300 people in Jiwaka province in the highlands, and 1,700 in Morobe province on the coast, said George Gigauri, the head of the International Organization for Migration in Papua New Guinea.
Despite the rains, people remain in need of assistance in the Pacific island nation of 7 million people who largely rely on what they grow in their backyard gardens and have little or no access to markets.
"The sweet potato takes six to nine months to grow. So even if they plant now, it takes time before they can harvest," said Gigauri by telephone from Port Moresby. Agriculture on the island focuses heavily on tuber crops.
"If sweet potato is hit, then the whole village will be in trouble, and that's what happened this time."
The drought has also forced healthcare facilities to close or operate at reduced capacity because of lack of water, said Boris Pavlin, an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Papua New Guinea.
Since the rains began, some of the health centres may have reopened, but many did not have good ways to store water in the first place, he said.
"They don't use running water, or have to haul water in buckets when they have to do a (birth) delivery," Pavlin said.
Aid agencies are coordinating with the government to distribute food and to monitor dengue outbreaks in Daru island off the southern coast near Australia, and probable cases in Kiunga in the west, near the Indonesian border.
The drought was caused by the El Niño weather system, which warms the Pacific Ocean and has caused extreme weather affecting millions of people across parts of the world.
"The rains are still insufficient and below expected levels. We're by no means out of the woods in terms of the impact of El Niño," Pavlin said.
"Many, many people are very affected because they live on the razor's edge."
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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