El Niño and water for food

Nari, Normal

The National, Tuesday February 16th, 2016

 By Dominik Ruffeis

The ongoing 2015 El Niño event has affected countless farming communities across PNG. Meteorological records suggest that this is the strongest event in recent history. 

Hard hit areas such as Western, Eastern Highlands, East New Britain, Manus, Jiwaka, Western Highlands, Central, Northern, Chimbu, Southern Highlands and Enga – which fall into category 3 and 4 zones – face severe shortage of food mainly staple crops. 

Communities with little resilience against this ENSO induced prolonged dry conditions struggle to sustain themselves and sometimes rely entirely on external food supply, which, due to logistical challenges and ineffective coordination, doesn’t always arrive when it is most needed.  

According to the National Disaster Response Committee, more than 800, 000 people are severely affected. Following the severe drought caused by El Niño in 1997/98, NARI has been campaigning on the need for drought coping strategies including climate change adaptation, drought preparedness, mid drought coping strategies and post drought recovery. 

NARI has adapted and developed new technologies to reduce vulnerabilities against impacts of severe El Niño events. Not only has El Niño affected well known cropping practices in PNG, but climate change is also predicted to change well known weather patterns and hence practices which farmers have adapted to and developed over thousands of years, within only a few centuries. This is certainly a huge challenge for both farming communities and research organisations alike.

In an EU funded project on climate change and food security, NARI and BOKU (Austria) developed a package of technologies which provides communities with tools and skills to get over dry spells and drought conditions. This includes technologies for domestic and agricultural use and management of water. 

The chosen holistic approach follows the MUS (multiple use of water) principle which includes all areas of water uses and protection. In most cases water in communities is used for domestic as well as agricultural (crop and livestock) purposes, livestock often being a major threat to water sources. 

Especially during times of drought when water is not only scares for crop production but also domestic use, contamination of water leaves the most vulnerable members, such as children, the elderly and pregnant women at greater risk to suffer from water-borne diseases. This serious threat together with malnutrition due to shortage of food is a sometimes a lethal combination.

The chosen holistic approach combines the need of a community for water and food at different levels. A reliable and safe water source is of paramount importance in this regard. Annual streams, springs and wells, if developed and installed properly, tend to be the most reliable options also during times of drought. Communities rely on external support as development of such water sources requires certain technical skills and proper financial backup. Local institutions have to assume and accept their responsibility to assist local communities in this respect. 

Storage of water and proper management thereof is another option to have access to water during dry spells. Importantly the water source has to be protected from any source of contamination, which is especially true during times of water scarcity and decreased renewal rate of water. 

Hygienic issues, also related to livestock and free roaming animals, pose an eminent threat to water sources. Embedding of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) into the MUS approach will take pressure off needed clean water sources. In locations were access to a clean water source is a problem during dry period the bios and filter technology offers a viable solution to purify contaminated water. 

The contaminated water is filter through different layers of sand and gravel and is purified by mechanical and biological processes within the bios and filter. Water management trainings to prepare the community for dry season and monitoring activities complete the package. 

Application of water to crops through irrigation is vital for a community’s food security. In this sense food security achieved through irrigation can be defined in different ways. Increased income through vegetable production for local and regional markets during regular years provides communities with money they can spend to buy much needed supplies during times of drought. 

In addition vegetables produced in small food gardens help to improve nutritional value of a family’s daily diet. Irrigating crops during drought and for fast post-drought recovery will keep crops and planting material alive and productive during droughts, dry spells and times of weather uncertainties. 

NARI and the EU-ARD project identified and promote various irrigation options ranging from low-cost self-made drip irrigation kit made of locally available material and from local hardware stores to commercial drip kits. In many cases communities responded well to the self-made irrigation kits made of garden hose, PVC pipes and bamboo, since commercial drip sets are too expensive and not available within PNG. 

Manual pumps such as the treadle pump and the NARI promoted rope and washer pump can easily be used to lift and convey water from any given water source. 

Irrigation usually implies more pressure on land resources, especially on soil through increased production and leaching of nutrients. Proper soil fertility management is of major importance to keep the soils and crops healthy and fertile. 

In its research activities and strategy plans, NARI has the goal to develop and disseminate complete packages of technologies to farming communities across PNG, raise awareness on drought coping strategies and build capacities, which make them resilient against climate change and impacts of El Niño induced weather extremes. 

A joint effort between national government, provincial and district administration, research, extension services and affected communities is obligatory to tackle this challenge.