By James Laraki (March 16, 2013)
DROUGHT is considered to be the world’s most destructive natural hazard. Reports indicate droughts are the world’s costliest natural disaster, accounting for US$6-8 billion annually, and impacting more people than any other form of natural disaster. Since 1900, over 11 million people have died and two billion people have been affected as a result of droughts.
Major droughts are not common in Papua New Guinea. The most severe drought recorded in our history was in 1997, when about 40% of the rural population were affected by shortage of food.
The memories of the 1997drought are still fresh in our minds. It caused great hardship for many rural communities, with records of deaths in a number of locations around the country. Remote areas were greatly affected. These are areas with low cash income. Villagers had limited ability to obtain cash with which they could buy imported rice and other food.
The other big drought events recorded were in 1914 and in 1941. There have been some less severe droughts experienced in 1965, 1972, 1982 and 1987.
When the next droughts will occur, their frequency or severity is not possible to predict. But we anticipate such events are likely to occur due to the changing climate.
The most imminent risk to PNG posed by climate change is the increased frequency of strong El Nino events and the severe drought conditions likely to be experienced in many parts of the country.
Following the 1997 drought, NARI has been devising strategies aimed at preparing local communities to cope with the likely effects of recurring drought situations.
NARI is concern of the impacts such events will have on food security and overall livelihood of communities. With this in mind, it is implementing a nationwide project: “PNG preparedness to intermittent and prolonged droughts and frosts” to continue the awareness. This is a continuation of the work initiated following the 1997 drought.
This project is one of the three impact projects that NARI has agreed to deliver under the performance agreement signed with the government early this year. These projects will be implemented between 2013 – 2015 consistent with the Alotau Accord and the Prime Minister’s State of the Nation Address that encapsulated the key priority of the O’Neil-Dion government. The other two projects to be implemented under this agreement are: innovative development of smallholder livestock; and domestication, commercialization and development of Canarium (galip) nut industry in PNG.
The drought project is aimed at ensuring rural communities in drought vulnerable parts of PNG have access to sufficient food and cash income from farming to sustain their lives, livelihoods and social responsibilities under recurring drought conditions.
As experienced in 1997, remote rural areas are more vulnerable. These communities still do not have good access to the necessary information and resources to cope with ill effects of droughts.
To address this need, NARI aims to establish and resource a network of resource centres throughout the country. NARI is looking at working with existing partners in selected communities to disseminate information on drought coping measures, demonstration of water and food conservation techniques and equipment, and the provide drought tolerant crop varieties to rural communities.
Under the performance agreement, NARI will establish 40 such centres throughout the country by 2015. Such centres will be established in districts that are classified as moderate to very high risk in terms of drought vulnerability.
To achieve agreed target, NARI will establish eight such centres and the 24 existing ones are fully functional in 2013. Other outputs planned for this year are:
We note this as a preventive measure, to ensure communities are aware and prepare for the ill effects of droughts, should one occur. It is a move towards science-based drought disaster risk reduction and move away from costly crisis response, which often comes too late to avert death and destruction. Post-disaster relief are costly than drought preparedness and risk management.
Prevention should be our priority. We need to develop strategies for resilience, especially for our rural communities who are always hit first and worst.
We believe building resilience to drought is not only a mitigation measure, but a wise investment with guaranteed high return. Post-drought relief is costly and often too late.
We hope the outputs of this project will at least contribute to laying the foundation to drought resilient communities in PNG.
PHOTO: Villagers admiring wheat field at NARI Tambul, Western Highlands. Wheat could easily be considered as a drought coping strategy as the milled flour could be stored for longer period