Mobile phones answer call for relief help

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western Anthropology professor Dan Jorgensen, whose work looks at how the people of Papua New Guinea reconfigure their social world in relation to, among other things, new communications technologies, said the use of mobile phones could play a major role in dealing with the country’s current drought.

Papua New Guinea is suffering a drought that may impact the Oceania country worse than a similar devastation in 1997, its worst drought on record.

Located just south of the equator, about 160 kilometres north of Australia, almost 1.8 million Papua New Guinea people have already been affected by the severe droughts, from the lower regions where waterways are drying up to devastating frost in the mountainous regions. Estimates could see the number of people affected by severe food shortages grow to approximately 2.5 million of the country’s 7 million residents.

While multiple factors are at play as disaster response ramps up, one Western professor said a simple device could play a vital role in who, and how quickly, aid is received – the mobile phone.

Western Anthropologist Dan Jorgensen, who returned from Papua New Guinea this past month, said the devastation is much more widespread this time around, adding the drought has hit some areas earlier than in 1997, as well as areas not affected the last time.


“They’re expecting this one, which started at different times in different areas around May or June, to last through to March,” said Jorgensen, a faculty member since 1977. “It’s starting to peak right now. When I was there a month ago, people were feeling the pinch, only in the hard-hit areas were they in bad shape – short of food, drinking water was difficult. Some areas are really depending on relief supplies already.”

A social anthropologist by training, Jorgensen’s fieldwork is among the Telefolmin people of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik headwaters. His most recent work tracks how local people reconfigure their social world in relation to Christian evangelism, large-scale mining, and new communications technologies.

Access throughout Papua New Guinea is by foot, by boat along the coastal areas, by car via one major, and a couple of minor, highways, or by bush plane, similar to what is used in remote northern Canada.

Jorgensen said one of the differences between 1997 and now is the widespread use of a mobile phone network that covers the country. While perhaps not using the latest models, almost everyone in Papua New Guinea has a mobile phone of some sort.

“For us, they’re a luxury. But this is a real tool for them,” said Jorgesen, noting the phones will “make a huge difference” in determining transportation networks, which are still struggling.

“Especially if you have a shortage on aircrafts and supplies, you have to have a priority list. Where do you go first? The way it worked then (1997) was to go to the places that had the easiest transport access.”

Now, through the use of mobile phones, things are changing.

Drought impact assessments that, in the past, were done by those who simply happened to make it to a specific village or town – and take well over a week to get into the right hands – can now be done same day, if not in real time.

“It’s a quick assessment form. All of this is more easily managed now that you can communicate. You can upload those forms on your cell phone and send them to those who are coordinating the information. This is one of the ways they start establishing their priority list for food, water, health, and access situations,” Jorgensen said.

There are numerous situations where data collection and communication assist in the organizing of any relief efforts, Jorgensen added. Fuel shortage is one problem because the water level in one of the towns that serves as a main transportation hub is so low that fuel boats can’t get upstream to make deliveries.

“One thing that is important is to be able to monitor that,” he said. “You can also pick up on immediate or pending medical emergencies as well, as one of the things they’re worried about is cholera with the contaminated water.”

Jorgensen added mobile phones are valuable in coordinating travel for the Hercules C-130 aircraft, as well as smaller planes, which need to land on short strips to bring in supplies. Strips are limited, due the mountainous areas and the need for level land.

“Engineers can check on strip conditions, get on their phones and say ‘here’s what the deal is,’” he said. “Before that they would have to take a chopper up or walk it.’

But with advantages come disadvantages.

“A problem with the mobile phones – and it’s very scary actually – is, it turns out their mobile phone towers don’t work without a power supply. They don’t have an electrical grid there, so without the fuel, communication goes down,” Jorgensen said. “In the short term, what they’ll (Papua New Guinea officials) have to figure out is whether to divert resources to fly fuel out to these various locations where they have the cell phone towers. They’re seriously wondering if they can afford to do it.

“There are still some glitches, but there is potential there; it hasn’t gelled yet. The trick is to find out who to call. It is being pieced together. They have the means to coordinate now.”

Terry Yon stands next his ‘kitchen garden’, which he has managed to maintain thanks to a piping and reservoir system he and other villagers created get water from the side of a nearby mountain.

Dan Jorgensen // Special to Western NewsTerry Yon stands next his ‘kitchen garden’, which he has managed to maintain thanks to a piping and reservoir system he and other villagers created get water from the side of a nearby mountain.