The National, Tuesday July 31st, 2012
By AKKINAPALLY RAMAKRISHNA
THE Asia-Pacific region faces well-documented challenges in maintaining and improving food security in the face of multiple stresses.
Climate stress, in particular, can compromise the ability of the region’s agricultural sector to sustain production.
Such a situation is particularly a concern in light of projected increasing climate stress under future climate change due to, for example, increased frequency of extreme precipitation events.
Livelihoods and household food security in PNG and the region can be extremely vulnerable to the negative effects of climate stress.
It is not possible to prevent the occurrence of extreme climate-related events but the negative impacts be mitigated through the efficient delivery and use of climate information and products.
Severe climate related hazards such as droughts and floods during the last three decades have led to disasters such as wide spread food insecurity and famine, loss of livestock and productive assets, as well as extensive population displacements including migration.
To make better decisions about their climate-related activities and livelihoods, we need better access to climate prediction and information to support the management of risks and opportunities. Early warning systems can prevent much loss of life and livelihood by alerting people to specific threats and enhancing the level of preparedness.
With better seasonal forecasts, farmers can plan optimal planting dates, the best mix of crops to grow and which disease- and pest-resilient varieties to choose.
This can help to improve food security, which can then reduce poverty.
In response to the severity and frequency of the climate-related hazards, a number of studies have been undertaken to understand the causes of extreme weather events in order to better predict them so that timely action could be taken.
Since 1998, there has been a concerted regional and international effort to use and link climate information with practical application in food security monitoring and early warning systems.
Climate scientists and farmers with close partnerships can effectively use seasonal forecasts and develop coping strategies in the event of natural disasters.
Climate variability and extreme weather events such as droughts, excessive rains and floods are among the main hazards affecting agricultural productivity and, hence, rural household food security in Papua New Guinea.
A failure of the rainy season is directly linked to agricultural failure reducing food availability at household level as well as limiting rural employment possibilities.
Climate forecasts on possible droughts and food shortages should help governments and humanitarian agencies plan ahead so that a timely humanitarian assistance could be provided.
National decision makers can also plan their food policy such as those related to import/export of food or the allocation of resources.
Seasonal climate forecasting is a rapidly evolving science that has developed recently.
It is based primarily upon the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere, which in turn can affect the ocean through the generation of ocean currents and anomalous heat and moisture fluxes.
Rainfall is highly variable, in amounts, space and time and drought is a normal, recurrent feature of climate, which occurs in virtually all climatic zones, and its characteristics vary significantly between regions.
Droughts and floods are mainly attributed to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), tropical cyclone activity and anomalies in monsoon wind systems, which mean that it is possible to provide early warning for the onset of the extreme events.
Climate information is applied every day to management decisions in the areas of health, energy, water management, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism elsewhere.
The best-known example of such information source that enables prediction of climate condition a few months in advance is the ENSO phenomenon.
El Niño occurrence is now seen as the most prominent source of inter-annual variations in weather and climate around the world.
With provision of the forecasting and early-warning indicators, individuals, communities and governments can develop appropriate seasonal response strategies to mitigate the harmful impacts of extreme climate events.
Early warning systems generally worked well in several parts of the world.
However, gaps remain in the ability of the early warning system to provide sufficient information and analysis to guide response planning.
For example, in 1997, PNG government did not receive early warning of impending shortfalls and thus did not take timely action.
Such situation shows clearly that critical gaps exist in the ability of climate information to be applied in the agricultural sector.
Further analysis of how climate information could better serve the agricultural sector thus seems an essential task. The main challenge here is to balance what users in the agricultural sector require with what scientists can confidently provide.
In order to achieve this, it is essential to develop the appropriate social and technological capacity to research and implement programmes to better understand, monitor and communicate drought occurrences and their related effects.
The climate data for PNG from past events exists but the capacity to use the information is lacking.
Professionals need to develop the skills to provide lead-time forecast information on extreme events.
Clear policy guidelines are needed to improve data exchange among institutions and to make it accessible in a user-friendly format in order to guide end-users in their seasonal agricultural decision making.
Drought monitoring and early warning systems can be enhanced if planners and scientists work together to promote the development of systems that are timely, relevant, understandable, affordable and people-centred.
NARI, therefore, has initiated new research projects to address some of these issues and working closely with the national institutions such as National Weather Services, National Disaster Centre, Office of the Climate Change and Development and advanced regional and international institutions to enhance and strengthen drought early warning systems in PNG.