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Impact of 2015 Papua New Guinea drought may be worse than 1997, reports agricultural scientist

Now in its fifth month, Papua New Guinea’s drought is having its biggest impact in high altitude locations and on the fringe of the Central Highlands, according to agricultural scientist, Dr Mike Bourke. He told Business Advantage PNG that this year’s drought is at least as bad as the 1997 drought, which affected nearly a million people in rural PNG.

Agricultural scientist Dr Mike Bourke, who has been working continuously in PNG since 1970 and has written extensively on the impact of the 1997 drought, has been in PNG to assess the damage of the 2015 drought and says it is ‘hitting many villagers pretty hard’.

Agriculture accounts for 30% to 40% of PNG’s GDP, and employs about 70% to 80% of the country’s labour force.

‘In some locations, the impact is very minor. In many others, there is tremendous disruption, but folk can adjust, while in many other communities, the ongoing drought is having a huge impact on the lives of many villagers,’ he told Business Advantage PNG.

‘It’s likely that the current crisis is going have a serious impact on the national economy, both the resources and agricultural sectors,’ he says.

‘A long drought is likely to have significant impact on oil palm production, possibly impacting production in New Ireland, West New Britain, Oro, Milne Bay, Madang and Morobe provinces. There are reports of some oil palm blocks in West New Britain being destroyed by fire.’

After the last major drought in 1997, production of oil palm and cocoa fell, although production of coffee increased.

Production

‘It is likely that oil palm production will be impacted in 2016, even if good rain returns by the end of 2015,’ he says.

‘If the drought persists well into 2016, the impact on production, and hence the local economies, will be even greater.’

Officially, the drought and frosts have affected more than 1.8 million Papua New Guineans, which has been made worse ‘due to the effects of climate change’, according to Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill.

The National Weather office is now predicting the drought will last until March, 2016.

‘A major impediment to planning a relief effort is the lack of current meteorological data,’ says the Australian National University scientist.

‘In 1970, 330 stations were recording data, but during the last major drought in 1997, we were able to obtain current rainfall data from about 30 locations. This figure is now less than 10.’

Shortages

Drinking water, an increase in some diseases, school closures, and food scarcity is now normal in many villages, according to a Uniting Church survey of parishes in Hela, Enga, Southern Highlands, Western Highlands and Simbu provinces in September.

With food scarce in many locations, some families are surviving on one meal a day, says survey leader, Matt Kanua, also an agricultural scientist.

‘As well, villagers on the fringe of the highlands are doing it tough, in the south of Simbu, Eastern Highlands Province, Morobe and the north of Gulf Province,’ Bourke adds.

‘Things are also not good in the mountains of Morobe and Madang provinces (Teptep, inland Saidor, Bundi, Simbai). Villagers on some small islands also have big issues, with some having to migrate to larger islands, such as Misima.

‘The impact on villagers is greatest where cash income is low, access to markets is poor or non-existent and there is no road or river transport to urban centres. This was the pattern in the 1997 drought and it is being repeated again in 2015,’ says Bourke.

The government has allocated a total of K220 million for drought relief. While it has so far declined to ask for international assistance, the United Nations Development Program is running public awareness campaigns to help people help themselves, assisting the government in assessments and logistics planning involving the World Food Program.

Dr Mike Bourke was awarded an Office of the Order of Logohu (OL) for long-term services to the country’s agriculture sector this year, as part of PNG’s 40 anniversary celebrations.

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