Over 2 million to be affected by upcoming drought in Papua New Guinea

More than 2 million people in Papua New Guinea stand to be affected by severe food and water shortages unless serious steps are taken to ease the effects of a possible drought in the next 12 months.

The warning came from Papua New Guinea’s National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI) which says there has to be a collective effort by government agencies as well as communities to deal with the effects.  

NARI’s warning comes in light of increasing global attention on the plight of coastal communities impacted by global warming and climate change.  While much of the focus is on coastal areas, the institute is reporting an increase in crop diseases and poor harvests as a result of higher temperatures in highland areas. 

“Crops react to temperature changes.  Different temperatures affect germination, flowering and seeding,” says NARI’s lead scientist, Dr. Akkinapally Ramakrishna.  “One crop may flower but it may not seed because of temperature variations.”

Over the last 40 years, the impact has become evident. Disease has decimated Papua New Guinea’s highlands  potato industry. Sweet potato - a staple in many parts of the country – is  also being  killed by a  fungal diseases. NARI says it has reached near epidemics proportions.

In a country where 85 percent of people live a subsistence lifestyle, all this has significant long term implications on Papua New Guinea’s overall food security.   Limited food surpluses will mean urban markets will not get a steady flow of food crops as is the case now.

Current data from various international agencies show that drier and hotter periods  are becoming frequent and more intensive.  While a  nationwide drought is a long term possibility, people can expected to see intermittent localized droughts.

The impacts of expected long dry periods won’t just affect food security.  With about  90 percent of Papua New Guinea’s electricity needs supplied by hydroelectric dams,  droughts will result in power rationing and increased costs to businesses and individuals.

“Drought is everybody’s problem,” says Dr. Ramakrishna. “We can’t just wait on the government to address it.”

In the face of  funding problems, the institute continues to push the government to consider the establishment of food banks, resilient agriculture systems and better water security. 


This type of scaremongering about 2 million people to be affected by a major drought can do a lot of damage in PNG, particularly when memories of the major 1997 drought are still fresh in many peopls's minds. The 1997 drought was the most severe of all the droughts in recorded PNG history. It was more severe than the major droughts (and frosts) in 1914 and 1941. It was also much more severe than the less serious droughs, such as the 1972 event.

The reality is that the best climate scientists is the world can not confidently predict drought or periods of excessively high rainfall more than 3-6 months into the future. They can predict a general trend, but not a specific event. The general trend predicted by all climate models (about 28 of them globally) is that the western Pacific, including PNG, will become somewhat (or a lot wetter) as the global climate continues to change.

Back to the 2012 'mega droght' which NARI has been predicting for the past few years: There is currently (mid-2011) NO clear indication that PNG is going to experience a drought in 2012. It is possible that there will be a drought in much of PNG in 2012 but, right now, there are no indications of this. It is also likely that there will be some localized dry periods. This is a common occurrence, but this is very different from a major drought whick is likely to impact on 'over two million people'. One can say that it is possible that there will be severe drought in a particular year in the future (eg 2017, 2025, 2032), but it is not possible to predict when such an event will occur.

Much of PNG has experienced a period of excessively high rainfall over the past year or so (La Nena conditions). The Southern Oscillation Index has now returned to neutral. This index is a measure of El Nino or La Nena, that is drought or very wet conditioins in PNG. So right now, the best indication is that PNG will experience normal conditions in early 2012. It is still too earlly to predict what will happen later in 2012.

Dear Mike,

There was no attempt at scaremongering. We reported what NARI has said. We appreciate your comments. Have you shared your concerns with NARI and Dr. Ramkrishna?

Dear Dr Mike,
Thank you for your comments and with due respect to me this article was not about scaremongering. It is about preparedness. Is PNG adequately preparing for the worst conditions to come? As you mentioned the 1997 drouht was one of the worst. And we depended on rice and flour from Australia and where politics got in the way things got worse for the starving populations.

We appreciate the work of the scientists, you included, and we will appreciate due warnings - something this country is lacking. Are we going to wait until it is too late?

You do realise that many people are now going for the hybrids, which are not drought resistant or pest resistant. What is going to happen if we do not hear now about the likely impacts?

Please let us know in due time. Some skills and knowledge need to be re-learned and we cannot start when we are deep into the drought already.

I am not scared here, but I have a responsibility to help communities prepare whether it is tomorrow and in 10 years it is better to prepare then be sorry.