Managing a drought at its peak

Nari, Normal

The National, Tuesday August 25th, 2015

 Papua New Guinea is presently into the peak of an intensified drought scenario ever witnessed in recent times. In the past month, communities have experienced low rainfall and prolonged dry spells, with accompanying frosts and wild fires, threatening food and water security for over half the population. The occurrences of frost in the high altitudes are reported to be some of the worst ever experienced. 

In some communities, dry conditions set in as early as March and by June it was clear the drought had returned. The first frost occurred on July 19 in Tambul and five more times since. 

According to the update of the National Disaster Response Committee (NDRC) meeting on Aug 18, more than 800, 000 people are severely affected in the following areas: 

  • Two provinces are in category 1 – Milne Bay and WNB;
  • seven provinces are in Category 2 – Madang, East Sepik, West Sepik, Morobe, New Ireland, Gulf and Autonomous Region of Bougainville;
  • eight provinces are in Category 3 – Western, Eastern Highlands, ENB, Manus, Jiwaka, Western Highlands, Central, and  Oro; and,
  • Four provinces are in Category 4: Chimbu, WHP, Southern Highlands and Enga.

Many affected communities are consequently witnessing the wilting  of garden crops with low household food supply, and shortage of clean water for drinking and domestic chores.

Strong El Niño-induced droughts are the most immediate risk to PNG as a result of global climate change. 

El Niño is a temporary change in the climate of the Pacific Ocean around the equator whereby the ocean surface warms causing trade winds to slacken and thunderstorms to move eastward into the centre of the pacific away from PNG – thus causing droughts. 

The frequency and intensity of these events have increased significantly in the last century in parallel with the increases in global temperatures. Situated on the Western Rim of the tropical Pacific, PNG has been and is vulnerable and this will continue to be so. Scientific evidence suggests that the 1997/1998 El Niño-induced drought was the strongest and worst scenario in living memory for PNG. 

The current drought is yet to be intensified but the indicators are unimaginable.

The good rainfall after drought, La Nina, also brings challenges like increase in pest and disease.

There are many calls to the Government for immediate support. While food aid programmes provide short-term relief, these cannot be the long-term solution. The long-term solution lies in adopting coping strategies and adaptive mechanisms for loss reduction and improved recovery. 

Following the 1997/1998 drought, NARI responded with a World Bank-funded research project and developed a series of drought-coping strategies for rural communities. The project was aimed at developing and adapting agriculture technologies to manage impacts of droughts and frosts in PNG. 

From this project, a number of coping strategies and adaptive mechanisms were identified and documented in a publication – “Drought Response: On-Farm Coping Strategies”, NARI Information Bulletin No. 6”. The publication is available online at, in runtime CDs and in a range of topical leaflets in Tok Pisin (NARI Tok Tok series).

The document, compiled by NARI researchers, with contributions from the AusAID’s ACNARS project and members of the National Drought Response Committee, provides a resource of information for extension providers. Further, NARI documented the traditional drought coping mechanisms used by farmers during the 1997 drought. This information can be found in Indigenous Drought Coping Strategies and Risk Management against El Nino in Papua New Guinea by Sergie Bang and Kud Sitango.

In the past century, not only has our planet warmed significantly but the strength and impact of El Niño events have increased. Climatologists suggest that El Niños are recurring every 10-15 years. Within the last decade, NARI has been campaigning on the need for drought preparedness. 

Several initiatives have been undertaken in selected communities across PNG, with the imparting of relevant skills and distribution of seeds and planting materials. The intention was to foster preparedness through the adoption and implementation of the recommended coping strategies, including some traditional coping mechanisms.  

The coping strategies are categorised into those to use before, during and after a drought. People need to assess the drought situation before applying these strategies.

The strategies are presented under three headings:

  • Pre-drought – when there is a forecast of dry conditions and crops face severe water deficits;
  • mid-drought – when crops face severe water deficits and crops fail; and,
  • Post-drought – between when good rains fall and harvest of first sown/planted crop.

 Some of the short term coping strategies which can be applied during drought periods include mulching of gardens, maintenance of planting materials and frost reduction (pre-drought); tuber storage, livestock management, water management, and fire management (mid-drought); and the cultivation of early maturing sweet potato varieties (post-drought). 

The long term strategies include cultivation of varieties of drought tolerant sweet potato, banana and cassava; post harvest processing; storage and use of grains and legumes like rice, corn and bean; and establishment of simple irrigation systems.   

The country is into drought presently thus any efforts will centre around ‘mid-drought’ coping strategies. 

Climatologists have long sought to understand what actually triggers El Niño and to predict its onset using large-scale climate models. To date, however, the primary trigger for El Niño remains unproven and climate models do little more than forecast the development of events once they have been initiated. 

Given the uncertainty surrounding the prediction of El Niño events and the probability that very strong events are going to recur more frequently as global temperatures rise, it is advisable that PNG has contingency measures in place which can be activated at short notice to deal with drought, food and water shortage situations as and when they arise. 

This column will run a series of articles on mid-drought coping strategies from next week onwards in a bid to share some insights on how communities can take initial steps in managing their remaining resources.