“I grew up on this land and so did my father and his father before him and so will my children and their children. This land is more than just our home. We hunt, grow food, build homes and raise our families here. I was born here and I will be buried here alongside my ancestors.”

Mike, villager in Killerton, Oro Province

For most Pacific states, disasters, both natural and man-made, are a fact of life. Nowhere is this reality more evident than in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Home to 7.2 million people and over 800 languages, PNG is prone to storms, volcanic eruptions, sea-level rise, tsunamis, coastal erosion, coastal bleaching, earthquakes, landslides, floods, drought, wildfires and cyclones.

Large parts of the country are extremely isolated, making access to humanitarian assistance difficult when disaster strikes.

Southern Region: Oro

The small coastal town of Killerton is home to rural villagers, who live off their ancestral land, surviving natural hazards through practices passed down from their forefathers.
Mike and Alice, who are in their early fifties, are life-long residents of Killerton and childhood sweethearts.
When Cyclone Guba flooded Killerton in 2007, Mike enlisted the help of his neighbours to move his and Alice's house.

“When the flood came through our village, we decided to move our home away from its path. A couple of men in the village helped me to cut my house in half and we moved it away from the path of the flooding. In about two hours we were able to move my home 200 metres. We still live in the same home.”

Like most people in PNG, Alice and Mike have a strong connection with the land they he grew up on, hoping to stay put as long as possible despite continued threats of cyclones and flooding.

Families in Killerton have had to adapt in order to continue living in the disaster-prone areas. The UN Migration Agency (IOM) is supporting these efforts. To mitigate and better manage risks, the residents of Killerton have identified ways to prepare themselves in the event of a future flood like emergency escape routes that can be taken to higher ground.

Momase Region: Morobe and Madang

Located in Labu, a coastal area not too far from PNG's second largest city Lae, is the small community of Kahingi. “Hundreds of years ago, our ancestors used to live in Lae which was a rural place at the time,” said one of the villagers. Over time, Lae became increasingly dangerous as tribal fighting broke out between neighbouring communities. So, the ancestors of this small community made the decision to move to costal Kahingi.

Tribal fighting has drastically reduced since then and the community faces a much different challenge today – climate change. They have seen their home disappear as the shores are washed away due to costal erosion and sea water intrusion.

One of the community leaders in Kahingi stands, where his gardens used to be over a decade ago, before being slowly swept away into the sea.

One of the community leaders in Kahingi stands, where his gardens used to be over a decade ago, before being slowly swept away into the sea.

“For years, we did not understand what was happening and many had simply thought that the sea would simply return the land it had taken from us. It wasn’t until IOM arrived that they made us face the reality of what was happening; the land is not coming back,” said a Kahingi villager.

“All of us here know that one day we will have to move. If our ancestors were able to move and adapt to a new land then so will we when the time comes,” said another villager.

Children play in the water an mere hour away by boat from Manam Island,  where they were displaced from. A 2005 volcano eruption covered Manam Island with lava and ash, destroying communities and leaving large swathes of land uninhabitable.

Children play in the water an mere hour away by boat from Manam Island,  where they were displaced from. A 2005 volcano eruption covered Manam Island with lava and ash, destroying communities and leaving large swathes of land uninhabitable.

Autonomous Region of Bougainville: The Cateret Islands

Beyond the shore of Buka, far into the Pacific Ocean with no telecommunications and almost no electricity, lie a small cluster of atolls called the Carteret Islands. With a combined landmass of a little over half a square kilometre, these islands are home to 2,000 islanders. Over the last several decades, the combined impacts of sea level rise and environmental degradation have resulted in coastal erosion, shrinking the islands significantly.

Selena Labsa was born on one of the tiny Carteret Islands before moving to the nearby mainland to study. She was halfway through her studies at the University of Technology in Lae when lack of financial resources forced her to move back home.

“Life here on the island is much simpler,” said Selena. “All we do is go fishing, harvest coconuts and other foods. That’s it.”

“When I was a little girl, this island was much bigger, the coast line stretched more than 20 metres into where the sea is today,” she recalled.

Selena lives with her grandchildren and husband on Heune – an island smaller than a football field. Originally, Heune was connected to a nearby island before coastal erosion separated them in the 1960s.

“I knew that my home was shrinking and understood what was happening but many on the island did not. There were groups of people who came a long time ago to try and educate us on the greenhouse effect but many where still confused until IOM came and explained costal erosion to us.”

Some people have already made the transition to the mainland including her children, who live in the city of Buka. “I know that when the day comes for us to move to the mainland that we will have to adapt, because we have no choice.”

Selena's grandchildren will likely be the last generation able to live on Heune Island.

The communities who live in the tropical atolls are among the most economically, socially and physically disadvantaged populations in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. This can be due to a number of factors such as high population density, low income levels, poor access to services, land shortages and diminishing crop yields. These factors are further compounded by the negative effects posed by climate change and other hazards such as tsunamis.

Residences of The Cateret Islands see IOM off after a visit.

Residences of The Cateret Islands see IOM off after a visit.

As the already miniscule atolls continue to shrink, IOM is helping the local islanders in mitigating this risk by preparing them for possible migration as an adaptation strategy and building their skills for transitioning to life on the main island. As seen in the coastal communities surrounding Lae, IOM has reached out to the communities living in the Carteret Islands and educated them on the inevitable reality that they face, which is: the islands will not be here forever.

New Guinea Islands: East New Britain and Bougainville

Highlands Region: Jiwaka, Simbu and Enga

The central spine of the country is made up of complex mountain ranges intersecting with alpine valleys and plateaus. The region has characteristically rugged terrain, limited roads, cultures that have developed over 12,000 years and communities that only first experienced the arrival of Westerners in the 1940s.

The rapid development experienced in coastal urban centres was not as far reaching in the Highlands due to the high cost of infrastructure development and maintenance. Only in the last 10 years have communities become exposed to modern technology. As a result of recent gas and mineral extraction, roads and telecommunications towers have been built.

The Highlands were greatly impacted by an El Niño induced drought in 2015. In most Highlands provinces, entire communities depend on subsistence farming. To alleviate current and future drought impact and build resilience, water boreholes installed with pumps have been placed by IOM in 17 worst affected locations in Simbu, Hela, Jiwaka and Enga provinces. IOM also provided affected farmers and vulnerable households with quality seeds in order to diversify their crops and improve food security through increased production. These included not only staple crops found in the area, such as sweet potato and cassava, but also additional crops that are more marketable such as carrot, cabbage, broccoli, maize corn, banana, rice and onion.

IOM provides emergency assistance in the aftermath of disasters in PNG, as well as help in reducing the vulnerability of the local population to future disasters. The programmes not only address the immediate needs but also promote “durable solutions” in response to displacement induced by natural and man-made disasters. Recognizing the importance of a well-informed, prepared and educated community, IOM is assisting the country in its preparedness through developing a disaster risk management strategy and standard operational procedure. This is becoming more and more relevant as PNG deals with the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation.

Community-based adaptation strategies being implemented by IOM have become increasingly important in the face of the multitude of challenges facing PNG, particularly with an increasing number of people moving into vulnerable regions and the heightened need for greater linkages between the responsible Government agencies and communities.

Through community-based disaster risk management (CBDRM), communities are being taught to be proactive in disaster management, creating space for them to develop strategies on their own terms rather than waiting for external help which may be delayed due to overstretched government capacities.

The life lessons and skills to survive have been taught over several generations and demonstrate what is possible in terms of adaptation and preparation. However, as the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation become more pronounced, new challenges are arising requiring new adaptation skills. IOM is assisting in this regard by facilitating community-based planning to help the people of PNG better prepare for new challenges.