By RAGHUNATH GHODAKE and MARTIN MOSE of NARI
There is a high possibility of occurrence of a strong El Niño event, causing severe drought in Papua New Guinea within the next three to four years (2011-2014).
In fact, there are strong indications for El Niño conditions developing in the later part of 2011.
Strong El Niño events causing severe drought conditions in PNG have increased in frequency over the last 100 years.
Prior to 1972, the average interval between such strong El Niño events was about 30 years; whereas in recent past such interval has been reduced to 10-15 years.
Besides, the recent El Niño events have been much stronger and have been producing increasingly more severe drought conditions in PNG.
This suggests another El Niño event causing severe drought in PNG is highly likely within the next three to four years.
During the 1997 drought there were severe shortages of food and water, with garden produce declining by 80%, 1.2 million people without locally-available food, declined health and increased mortality, and huge exodus of people to towns (Bang et al. (2003) ESCAP CGPRT Centre Working Paper 73).
By considering the increasing severity of the recent El Niño events, it is expected that the next drought may also be more prolonged and more damaging than that of the year 1997, and that would put the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of people at risk throughout the country.
It should however be noted that reliable assessment and indications of El Niño occurrence can only be known two to three months ahead of such event and that would be too late to prepare for adaptation to and mitigation of adverse impacts of such severe drought, particularly in a country like PNG where the majority of population is in remote areas with weak communication and infrastructure.
Therefore there is need to have an appropriate understanding and preparedness to face such events much in advance.
Food production in PNG is highly vulnerable to El Niño-induced droughts and even other seasonal events of droughts.
Unless action is taken to empower and equip our farming and rural communities with appropriate technologies and information, people would be exposed to food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger.
It is advisable that PNG has contingency measures in place which can be activated at short notice to deal with drought and food shortage situations under such a highly likely scenario.
National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) and its sister institutions like the National Disaster Centre (NDC) are raising awareness, nationally, of the prospect of a drought in the near future and generating debate on how best to prepare rural communities for such a scenario. There is certainly a need to empower farming and rural communities with information on and access to drought-coping strategies such as water and food conservation techniques, drought-tolerant crops, their species and management practices, and understanding of El Niño and drought events.
These activities need to be undertaken in partnership with government and non-government organisations, community-based and church organisations and progressive communities.
Besides food and water shortages (both in rural and urban areas), severe droughts can cause disease outbreaks, population out migration, school closures, bush and forest fires, hydro-power shortages, breakdown of transport and communication infrastructures and law and order problems.
Drought management will therefore require a multi-sectoral partnership through a national drought management task force.
NARI and NDC are working closely with other organisations such as National Weather Service and other stakeholder groups in this endeavor and are strongly advocating for a national drought preparedness strategy to coordinate and manage the numerous emergency issues associated with likely severe drought in near future.
The challenge is for all in preparing PNG for such an event.