El Niño Drought Threatens Papua New Guinea’s Fruit Bowl

Gola Ulgiti.
Gola Ulgiti.

By Sally Shute-Trembath

As El Niño weather patterns continue to smash global heat records globally and with even drier weather on the way, one area that is especially feeling the impact is PNG's Highlands region.

As El Niño weather patterns continue to smash global heat records globally and with even drier weather on the way, the UN has warned that as many as four million people may be adversely affected by drought in the Pacific.

One area that is especially feeling the impact with evident food and water shortages is the Highlands region in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Flying recently into Mount Hagen from the capital Port Moresby, the aerial view of the city and its surrounding provinces resemble a scorched patchwork, a palate of many shades of brown. The fallout from the El Niño-induced drought follows severe frosts which in late August wiped out subsistence crops throughout the region.

Known as PNG’s fruit bowl, the Highlands produces an estimated 80% of food consumed in the country. Usually, a constant flow of Papuans travel regularly to the region to stock up on its seemingly endless supply of fruit and vegetables which grow easily in the fertile volcanic soil, without pesticides. Catch a plane out of the Highlands and you’ll typically notice the cargo of outbound planes is largely produce like pineapples bigger than your head, cabbages the size of basket balls, giant lime-green speckled cucumbers, broccoli, passion fruit, oranges and bananas, all packed and ready to go.

A visit to the local market confirms that vendors fear water shortages from the worst drought in 18 years are worried the region may lose their livelihoods as well as a key local food source.

“If I can’t grow my produce and sell it I have no other way of making money. We hope every day for rain,” Gola Ulgiti, a market seller, told me, while neighboring peanut seller Sally Joe complains that lack of supplies means she must sell at a higher price and will lose business. Roslyn John, yet another vendor, gripes that the price of mandarins, cucumbers and other items “has gone through the roof. Even for staples like sweet potato.”

It’s also a problem for the country at large, and one that remains fresh in many people’s minds.

Many people at the Mt Hagen market remember 1997, when the Highlands suffered the most severe drought on record. Acute food shortages killed hundreds and affected over a million people (40% of the population), mostly in remote areas dedicated to low-income, subsistence farming. Crops failed, and schools and clinics closed because of lack of food and water.

Such major droughts are not common in PNG,  and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has already warned that this current drought could be worse than the one in 1997 if El Niño weather patterns continue into 2016.

Governments and communities need to prepare now and work together to develop some relief solutions if PNG’s fruit—and vegetable—bowl is to remain bountiful.