PNG needs to prepare for a harsh drought in 2011

Papua New Guinea is likely to suffer a strong El Nino induced drought from mid-2011 which could last for up to 18 months.

This dire warning comes from the Director-General of the National Agriculture Research Institute, Dr Ragunath Godake, and National Disaster Centre acting director, Martin Mose. 

People need to prepare for the effects of the drought by planting and stockpiling agricultural crops that can withstand the effects of the long dry spell as there will likely be a severe shortage of food supplies, especially in rural areas, when all the food gardens dry up. The drought will also dry up streams and waterholes in bush areas.

NARI is urging villagers to grow cassava, yam, sweet potato and species of banana trees that can withstand the drought and the sun.

NARI has also worked out its drought strategies on how best to help maintain commercial crops like cocoa and coconut.

Industries, as well as ordinary people, should get in touch with NARI well ahead of the drought to see how best they can maintain food security during the dry spell.

It is all too easy to ignore such warnings as had happened in the past at great cost to the nation.

1997 drought

The last El Nino-induced drought in 1997 cost the nation K500 million in foreign exchange reserves.

This was about 62% of the previous K800 million reserve and left the country with only enough funds to cover the cost of two months of imports. 

The drought induced closure of mines such as Ok Tedi. The Fly River, which is normally navigable for about 800km up to the port of Kiunga, dropped so low in August 1997 that only canoes could move up and down the river. Ore could not be carried down to the river mouth for export and supplies for the mine could not be brought in.

The long-term impact of the drought on agricultural exports was dire. 

Reports from that time stated that coffee exports fell by 11.8%, cocoa by 32.9%, copra by 35.7% and palm oil exports fell by 22.6%.

While the social impacts of the El Nino were difficult to determine, suffering on a massive scale occurred across the country. Those worst affected were subsistence farmers living a semi-subsistence lifestyle in the highlands and island provinces.

In September 1997, the government allocated K4 million to provincial administrations to fund immediate relief to the worst-affected areas, but it was too little too late. A further K20 million had to be provided in the same month.

The international response to the developing crisis was timely and substantial. Donors provided about K2.4 billion to the drought trust account in 1997. Australia deployed C-130 Hercules and Caribou aircraft and various helicopters as well as naval landing craft to deliver assistance. By June 1998, a total of K60 million had been provided.

French military aircraft from New Caledonia visited PNG in December 1997 and delivered food for about a week. Japan funded delivery of a large quantity of world food programme rice to Lae for the national government’s relief operation.

An analysis of that event, more than a decade ago, reveals PNG lacked any real organisation. While there existed a disaster management system, it lacked efficiency, preparedness, quick response and recovery activities.

The warning has been given and now it is time for everyone to start preparing.