The National, Tuesday December 29th, 2015
By Seniorl Anzu
Year 2015 will go down the record as one that shocked the country with the devastating El Nino-induced drought event.
Devastating that families had to migrate from Kandep to Magarima searching for food as their staple, kaukau, was all frosted. Shocking that communities in Mougulu in the Western resorted to mushroom for survival since food was scarce.
Students in Namatani were sent home as there was no more water in the tanks, while crops failed to perform in Derin and Murukanam of Madang due to lack of soil moisture. Bushfire posed much threat to homes, livestock and food gardens in Markham and parts of the highlands.
Communities in the Trans-Gogol and Wanenara areas also faced serious food shortages, with people eating only once a day; and eating less when they did eat.
Food and water shortage became real issues for PNG for most of the second part of the year. The low water levels at Yonki and Sirinumu dams say it all.
It’s a reflection that PNG went through a period of abnormal dry weather with rainfall below a critical level, resulting in major adverse impacts on agricultural production.
Communities became vulnerable environmentally and socio-economically.
The last drought of similar magnitude was in 1997, according to records. There were such reports of food shortage caused by a prolonged dry spell associated with frost events.
The El Nino phenomenon was not an isolated challenge for PNG; communities in Vanuatu, Solomon Island and other Pacific nations faced similar scenarios – even North Efate in Vanuatu experienced a much stronger drought than some parts of PNG.
There has been widespread rain between November and December, including heavy rain falls for several days in the two major cities, however the amount received was still below normal.
The National Weather Service’s Seasonal Climate Outlook for January to March 2016 has it that indicators are showing signs of weakening although the sea surface temperatures (which are driving this El Niño) continue to remain higher.
“Even though there are indications of the slowing down of the El Niño, the International Climate Models indicates that the demise of this El Niño may not happen until the first quarter of 2016.”
Thus all is not over as we enter New Year this week.
With some more dramatic changes to the weather pattern between January and March, the present El Nino drought is likely to demise.
With such predictions, early preparation of food gardens should be a priority. The current rains provide much needed moisture to multiply seedlings and have them ready in time for planting when the situation returns.
There are a number of post-drought coping strategies recommended by NARI based on its research following the 1997 drought. These include early maturing varieties of kaukau and others food crops for different agro-ecological zones.
Communities should also use their indigenous knowledge for recovery during such situations.
Planting of quick maturing crops after the drought is the obvious solution. The use of early maturing varieties to provide food in the post-drought period is recommended.
In order to do this, planting materials must be available and should have been preserved though the drought period.
Other important crops that will produce rapidly after a drought are maize, beans, peanuts and potato.
It’s worth noting not to plant sweet potato alone. A reason being that during a drought many very small insects and animals that normally live in the soil die and increase the nitrogen in the soil.
The quick growing crops can use the nitrogen to grow quickly and yield well, but the sweet potato cannot and low yields can occur, as they did in 1997/1998. It is better to plan a crop of maize first, followed by a crop of early maturing sweet potato.
It is strategic to make necessary efforts now. The message from the National Government was clear – with the directive to all electorates to use a good fraction of their DSIP funds in the drought recovery processes.
While feeding rural villagers may be an expensive exercise, the greatest needs are in remote locations. They have their own logistical and security issues though.
The Kundiawa Gembolg district has demonstrated an excellent example with its partnership with NARI to raise seedlings and supply them to the people.
Supplying of food rations is a short-term solution. Affected communities must produce their own food to sustain themselves. Communities should have access to adequate supply of seeds and seedlings or foundation materials to recover agriculturally. It is advisable to start off with early maturing varieties, as they will bring food home soon.
Limited quantities of foundation materials and information packages are available at NARI. All that are required are partnerships and real concerted efforts in multiplying and distributing these materials to the communities now when they really need them.