Friday, May 21, 2010

Preparing Papua New Guinea for drought and climate change

A model resource centre at the NARI field day at Bubia.-Pictures by MALUM NALU

Morobe Governor Luther Wenge launches NARI’s drought resource centre.

Chief Secretary to Government Manasupe Zurenuoc (right) launches the drought preparedness plan together with NARI Director General Dr Raghunath Ghodake
Morobe Governor Luther Wenge, Chief Secretary to Government Manasupe Zurenuoc and NARI Director General Dr Raghunath Ghodake
Food drops being grown on a trial basis at Bubia outside Lae. Will they be evergreen like this in 2012?


The 1997 El Nino-induced drought was, as far as I can remember, one of the worst events that I can ever remember.

I was based in Lae at that time, and often took long drives up the Markham Valley, which is often called the “food bowl” of Papua New Guinea.

The green grass was burnt brown by the prolonged drought, cattle were thin as skeletons and even the chickens didn’t get a respite.

Thousands of villagers in the Markham were affected as their gardens turned dry and betelnut – one of their main sources of income – followed suit.

The Markham Valley epitomised what happened throughout PNG at that time as food gardens turned dry and animals became skeletons.

But amazingly at that time, while the Markham and the rest of PNG suffered, Lae lived up to its “rainy” tag as rain continued by the buckets.

The year 1997, coincidentally, was a national election year so at least many of the people got a free feed just by following their favorite candidate, hence, perhaps 2012 will bring a sense of déjà vu.

And it was also the year of the infamous Sandline Crisis.

Effects of the 1997 El Nino continued into 1998 as it took time for the soil and betelnut trees to recover.

I remember once in 1998, I was driving my late wife Hula to Nadzab Airport to catch a flight back to Port Moresby and on to Australia, and she wanted some betelnut.

Betelnut was as rare as hen’s teeth then because of the drought, and after finding none along the main Highlands Highway between Lae and Nadzab, we drove into a small village near Nadzab where we bought a tiny bunch for K80.

All these memories came back on Wednesday, May 5, as I was among hundreds of people who converged on the National Agricultural Research Institute at Bubia outside Lae for the annual Agricultural Innovations Show for 2010 staged at its Sir Alkan Tololo Research Centre.

As if by divine intervention, to remind us all how fast climate change can take place, it rained heavily that day after fine weather in the preceding days.

This was the fourth year of this “information exchange and knowledge sharing” event in which partner and collaborating organisations in agricultural and rural development displayed and exhibited their innovations and improved technologies and interacted with farmers and the general public.

Over the past four years, NARI has been spearheading a campaign to prepare Papua New Guinea for recurring periods of prolonged drought linked to changes in the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

In recognition of the urgent need to prepare PNG for such a scenario, the theme of NARI’s innovation show this year was: “Preparing PNG for Drought and Climate Change”.

As an integral component of the event, NARI also hosted a major stakeholder forum under the banner: “Preparing PNG for Drought”.

This aim of this forum was to raise awareness on drought nationally and to debate how best to prepare rural communities for drought conditions.

NARI invited representatives from all the major international and national aid agencies and government institutions concerned with food and agriculture, environment and water security issues in PNG.

Guests included Chief Secretary to Government Manasupe Zurenuoc, Morobe Governor Luther Wenge, John Malai from PNG Red Cross, Andrew Kalai from Salvation Army, Merilyn Gairo from Adventist Development and Research Agency, NARI Director General Dr Raghunath Ghodake and scientists Dr Pikah Kohun, Dr John Bailey, Dr Akkinapally Ramakrishna and Dr Workneh Ayalew

Local NGOs, churches, community-based organisations and rural farming communities were also invited to participate in this forum.

Mr Zurenuoc, no stranger to drought and emergencies because of his previous life as Morobe provincial administrator, launched a major drought preparedness plan.

The plan, appropriately titled, “Preparing Rural Communities in PNG for Drought and Climate Change”, involves NARI as Papua New Guinea prepares for the next major expected drought in 2012 after the havoc caused by the last El Nino-induced drought in 1997.

Mr Zurenuoc said the launching of the project was very timely and relevant to the lives of PNG’s farming and rural communities as the effects of climate change were all too real in these areas.

He said the changes taking place in the country’s rainfall patterns had been much more sudden and unexpected due to variations in the strength and frequency of El Nino events in the tropical Pacific.

“These events are triggering severe dought conditions in PNG once every 10 to 12 years,” Mr Zurenuoc told a stakeholder forum at Bubia.

“There are two major concerns with these El Nino events: the associated drought conditions they bring have been getting progressively more severe and causing ever-greater food and water security problems; and because they only happen sporadically, every 10-12 years, the necessity to put contingency measures in place to help them cope with these problems.”

He commended NARI for taking the initiative over the past three years and campaigning to prepare PNG for drought, and indeed another mega-drought in the near future, particularly principal scientist Dr John Bailey.

Mr Zurenuoc said Government recognised the importance of what NARI was doing and was pleased to provide funding for this initiative under its public investment programme (PIP).

“This will be a long-term investment to assist NARI and its partners in equipping a network of resource centres throughout the drought-vulnerable parts of the country,” he said.

“It is envisaged that these resource centres – possibly 50 in total – will be located at existing stations or bases owned and operated by various extension or outreach organisations including the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, divisions of primary industry, non-government organisations, community-based organisations, schools and church-based organisations.

“I understand that NARI will work in partnership with all of these organisations to ensure that our communities are well prepared to cope with drought events in the foreseeable future.”

The model resource centre, launched by Mr Wenge on the same day, will be built at strategic points around the country.

“The model resource centre, on show here today with its poster displays, food-processing demonstrations and indoor technology displays, illustrates the types of information and resources that need to be made available to out rural communities,” Mr Zurenuoc said.

“They have shown us how to alter the ways in which we manage and use our food and water resources in order to minimise the risks to food and water security during crisis.”

Mr Wenge launched NARI’s model resource centre as PNG prepares for the next big El Nino-induced drought in 2010

This is part of NARI’s plan to prepare rural communities in PNG for frequent and prolonged El Nino-induced drought events.

The Government has provided PIP funding of K2.5 million to equip a network of resource centres throughout the country – operated by government, non-government and church organisations – with the information and resources to help communities cope with recurring drought events.

The most-imminent risk to PNG posed by climate change is the increased frequency of strong El Nino events and the severe drought conditions they bring to much of the country.

Following the drought of 1997, NARI developed a series of strategies to help communities adapt their traditional food production systems to cope with the effects of drought.

These strategies have since been publicised at NARI field events and open days in various parts of the highlands and lowlands.

Notwithstanding this, most rural communities in the highlands, lowlands and islands regions still do not have good access to the necessary information and resources to cope with prolonged drought conditions.

Mr Wenge said he had full confidence in the NARI team to help carry PNG through the expected 2012 drought.

“I’m confident that NARI has the scientific team to carry us through the expected 2010 drought,” he said.

All we, the people of PNG can ask for, is that the Government prepares early for the next drought and not be caught completely off guard as it was in 1997.

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