By Catherine Wilson
AVANINOFI, Papua New Guinea (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One day last March, farmers in this village on the banks of the Kafetina River, in the mountainous highlands of Papua New Guinea, watched their food gardens swept away by pouring rain, flooding and landslides.
Just months later, a severe drought has engulfed the country, affecting nearly a million people in the highlands and leaving many facing severe food shortages until rains return at the end of the year.
The Papua New Guinea government’s National Disaster Centre estimates that providing food to families that need it will cost $12 million over the next four months, as the country endures what some are calling the strongest El Nino climate phenomenon in memory, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Weather extremes are forecast to worsen this century in this southwest Pacific Island state, as in many parts of the world, and have led the government to focus on boosting rainwater harvesting and introducing crops tolerant of extreme weather to help farmers who face growing risks of crop losses.
Food growers in Avaninofi say the extreme rainfall that launched this year’s problems was unprecedented.
Papua New Guinea can receive 3 meters of rainfall a year. But no one in Avaninofi was prepared for the destruction unleashed in March by torrential rain, gale force winds and hailstorms, which affected more than 100,000 people across the country, local people say.
In some areas, such as East New Britain Province, nearly a quarter of the country’s average rainfall for the month fell within 24 hours.
“We have never experienced such flooding before. It took everything: the food crops and also some of the cash crops, especially the coffee, and we were left with nothing,” Frank Sifeu, a resident of Avaninofi in Henganofi District, Eastern Highlands Province, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Coffee and banana trees, peanut, tomato and corn crops, and seven houses were washed away. One child drowned, he said.
Naisman Mitio, a food crop officer with the Eastern Highlands Provincial Division of Agriculture, said the deluge also triggered “a number of landslides from different locations (on the mountainsides) which removed whole food gardens, coffee trees, citrus and vegetable gardens.
"It swept the gardens away to the river and buried some of them, too. At the same time the river flooded and gardens beside the riverbed were washed away," he said.
Six of the country’s 22 provinces were pronounced disaster areas in March, including Gulf province in the country’s south, Jiwaka in the interior and the eastern autonomous region of Bougainville.
More than 80 percent of the country’s population of 7.2 million depend on agriculture for food and income, and the decimation of crops by floodwaters and landslides plunged many rural families into hunger and financial difficulties.
Losses and damages to infrastructure, commercial farming and livelihoods were estimated at more than 100 million kina ($36 million), according to the Papua New Guinean government.
But the people of Avaninofi say that moving away from the river to avoid further losses is not an option as the village is surrounded by steep mountains and there is no other suitable place to live.
In the disaster’s aftermath, the provincial government stepped in to provide villagers with emergency food supplies and new planting materials, such as sweet potato and cassava cuttings, African yam and cabbage seeds.
But then the long dry season arrived in April – and a drought that appears to have been worsened by a particularly strong El Nino climate phenomenon this year.
“We tried to plant the crops, but due to the dry weather the heat has withered most of the food that we planted,” Sifeu of Avaninofi said.
Lisa Ovifa, a farmer in the village, also has seen her vegetable garden turn into little more than a patch of parched earth by the mostly dry riverbed.
“The soil is very hard and we have tried irrigating it with river water, but it has not helped, so we are surviving on bananas and cassava,” she said.
Rains should return by November, but it will take a further three months to produce the first harvest, families say. In the meantime, they will buy fresh produce from other communities to survive, Sifeu said.
“People up in the mountains, in the rainforest area, they will bring down food and sell it on the roadside or at the market and we will buy some,” he said.
Luanne Losi, an adaptation policy analyst at the national Office of Climate Change and Development (OCCD), said her office was looking at ways of addressing the country’s extreme weather problems, including growing more drought-tolerant crops and finding ways of storing water to water crops in the dry season.
“The impact of climate change on food production will be very critical,” she said.
Jenifa Kena of the Eastern Highlands Women in Agriculture organization said that women, who are the primary food growers, are particularly hard hit.
“Especially the women face hardship because they are the ones to put food on the table and the ones who go to the market to sell the food to bring income for the family,” she said.
Kena has encouraged farmers in the province to plant more hardy African yams to improve their food security in the face of extreme weather, and advised them on ways of preserving the staple crop as a powder which can be used in cooking and baking during the lean months.
(Reporting by Catherine Wilson; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)