Papua New Guinea drought still affecting economy, in spite of rainfall


Although many parts of the country are returning to normal, the Papua New Guinea drought is continuing to affect both its formal and informal economies. Business Advantage PNG receives an update on the situation from agricultural expert, Dr Mike Bourke.

The drought has led to many deaths

The drought has affected many rural areas

The impact on larger businesses in PNG has been notable. According to the PNG 100 CEO Survey, which is produced annually by Business Advantage International, and is set to be published next month, 40 per cent of respondents from PNG’s largest companies reported the drought was either ‘mission critical’ or ‘very important’ as an issue facing their business.

The challenges have been especially great in PNG’s mining sector, where access to water can be critical. The Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in Western Province, the nation’s largest mine, only opened last week after being shut down for seven months by the drought. Ok Tedi is one of PNG’s largest earners of foreign exchange, and a substantial contributor to government revenue.

Agricultural Scientist, Dr Mike Bourke

Agricultural Scientist, Dr Mike Bourke

Informal sector

While the hills surrounding PNG’s capital Port Moresby are green, at least 150,000 rural villagers are reportedly still facing severe shortages of food and water.

Although many parts of PNG are returning to normal, parts of Western, Enga and Milne Bay provinces have little food, according to Dr Mike Bourke, Agricultural Scientist at Canberra’s National University.

Bourke says the drought continues in the far south of PNG, especially in the south of Western, Central and Milne Bay provinces. Hence some villagers are still facing shortages of clean water, he says.

‘This is happening even as parts of the Highlands experience flooding and damage to roads and bridges from heavy rain.

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‘Things are particularly grim in Western Province,’ he told Business Advantage PNG, ‘particularly the central and southern part of Western Province, away from Ok Tedi mine and the Kiunga to Tabubil road corridor. The situation is worst in the Nomad/Mougulu area and the Morehead area, but food remains scarce in some other remote places in Western Province.’

Export crops survive

By contrast, PNG’s two biggest food exports have proven durable. Bourke says oil palm, PNG’s largest food export, has not been greatly affected. ‘This is a crop that’s as tough as old boots and the experts tell me it’ll bounce back. Production was impacted after the 1997 drought, but industry sources say this does not appear likely in 2016.’

Coffee production, PNG’s second biggest food export, ‘is going sideways,’ says Bourke. Cocoa production has been greatly reduced by cocoa pod borer.

The government’s three main agricultural agencies need to ensure assistance is made available to develop more robust and diverse food systems.

‘The biggest impact of the drought has been on food sold for cash. For example, sweet potato, English potato and other vegetables in the Central Highlands have dried up in many highland markets.

‘This affects producers, but there’s also the middleman and transporters who are impacted.’

Food prices rise

Bourke says in some parts of inland Western Province, a lack of water is preventing people from processing sago and food gardens are not producing.

‘In many places in the Highlands, people are existing on pumpkin, corn, and some are still doing it tough as the new plantings of sweet potato have not yet matured,’ he says.

‘The common denominator with all these areas is remoteness, lack of market access, services and income.’

‘A high proportion of the population is reporting food items are a lot more expensive.

‘Food is also extremely short in a number of small islands in Milne Bay Province and this has now extended to grassland locations north of Alotau on the mainland.

‘The common denominator with all these areas is remoteness, lack of market access, services and income.’

Bourke says villagers have responded by purchasing food, mostly imported rice, ‘which has resulted in an estimated 35–40 per cent increase in rice sales’. He says things are returning to normal in the Momase and Islands regions.


Bourke believes the government’s three main agricultural agencies need to ensure assistance is made available to develop more robust and diverse food systems, in preparation for when the next El Niño event occurs.

He suggests the plan should include having available large quantities of fast-growing maize (corn), potato, and sweet potato. These fast growing foods can be used to hasten the return to normal food consumption after a natural disaster.

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