Papua New Guinea (PNG) is known as the “land of the unexpected” and it certainly lives up to that reputation. Stunningly beautiful, with friendly and welcoming people, it is also insecure, vulnerable to a range of natural disasters and lacking in basic infrastructure.

When the opportunity came to work alongside my Red Cross colleagues in the Papua New Guinea Red Cross, I didn’t hesitate. 

Usually one of the wettest and cloudiest places on the globe, parts of the country had been experiencing a prolonged dry spell since May 2015, because of a severe El Niño system. The drought was worsened by severe frost, most notable in the Highlands Region. Coupled with the drought, this had caused severe hardship for 2.5 million people.

One of my first impressions was the commitment and enthusiasm of the Red Cross volunteers. I worked closely with more than 20 volunteers and one in particular stood out.

Julie, a mother of four, had been an active member of the Red Cross since 2005. She is one of the few women permitted to travel to the field with the mostly male PNG Red Cross team.

“To stay a housewife is not really for me. I want to expand my knowledge so I can serve communities in the Highlands of my country. As a volunteer with the Red Cross, I understand local customs and I usually stand by women and the girls and talk to them to gather information that is useful. Sometimes, men expect big things, but women don’t expect the big things. Women tend to tell the facts.”

During the first few weeks in the field, Julie, myself and the team discovered that the springs the communities normally relied on for drinking water had dried out because of the drought. People had to walk further to reach the main rivers that were still flowing to fetch water for drinking and bathing.

Water from the rivers was generally not treated and this increased the risk of a diarrhoea outbreak. Households in the villages were scattered, and reaching those affected often involved walking for hours. But the PNG Red Cross volunteers did not seem to mind the long days with little rest. Sometimes landslides blocked their way and nights were spent sleeping on mats in disused government offices.

According to the Institute of Sustainable Futures more than 6,000 people in Papua New Guinea die each year of diarrhoea. This statistic on its own is alarming, particularly for those of us working in the Water and Sanitation Hygiene Promotion sector.

Our response focused on promoting good hygiene behaviours to reduce the risk of a diarrhoea outbreak. This was done through interactive exercises, such as boiling of water and washing of hands.

In PNG, household tasks associated with water and sanitation are carried out by women and children. It was particularly important that the hygiene messages reached this target audience, so Julie and the mostly male volunteers trained 55 female community hygiene promoters to work alongside them.

Local security also created some challenges. The communities we worked with had a long history of inter-tribal fighting and there had recently been instances where government offices had been looted for the supplies which were stored in them. To minimise the risks to the Red Cross team, extensive community consultation had to be carried out in a culturally sensitive and appropriate manner. This was done through numerous trips to the affected area to consult with community leaders on our upcoming activities.

One indication of the success of the project was the positive feedback from the community and the numerous requests for us to return and expand our assistance. Water and sanitation remains a significant issue and whilst the Papua New Guinea Red Cross was able to provide temporary relief and education on hygiene and sanitation, more is needed to assist these communities in the long term.

There is also a need for the PNG Red Cross to expand its volunteer base to include more women. In Julie’s words, “I would like other girls to come and see what the Red Cross is doing - helping people to help each other. When they see that, they will want to join and volunteer”.