El Niño in Fiji - 1997/98 and today

In the 1997/8 wet season, Fiji recorded the lowest ever rainfall at almost all recording sites across the country. The drought, in an El Niño year, saw water and food shortages across Fiji. The Western sides of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, as well as the Yasawa Islands were the worst hit regions, where 90 per cent of the population received food and water rations. Schools were forced to close because of water and sanitation issues. The drought drove the Fiji economy into the worst recession in its history, hitting food and cash crops hard. The 1998 drought report by the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team showed the sugarcane harvest was slashed by nearly 50 percent, causing a FJ $104 million loss in revenue in the sugarcane industry alone.

“In 1997-8, we had about nine consecutive months where we got below average rainfall and about 60-90 consecutive days where there was no rainfall. It had a huge impact on our agricultural productivity and our country’s economy. Most people will still remember 1997-8 and we suggest that people remain prepared should this be a similar scenario,” Ravin Kumar, Director of the Fiji Meteorological Service said.

A drought warning is already in force for Fiji. Rainfall for June across Fiji was below average and sugar cane farmers are already reporting crop reductions in the vicinity of 25 per cent in Fiji. The Government estimates that more than 67,000 people are already adversely affected by the lack of rain. The Fijian Government reports that hundreds of thousands of litres of water has already been sent to parts of the Western Division, including the outer islands to supplement dwindling local supplies. The prospect of an intensifying drought has many seriously worried.

“Certain parts of the country are resorting to irrigation of their crops and some of the crops, especially in the north western Parts of Viti Levu, have started to dry up,” Mr Kumar said.

The challenge of distributing food and water rations to small islands over such an enormous area is a logistical nightmare.

“This process has already begun in Fiji with emergency water supplies being delivered to villages and schools by district authorities, especially on the outer islands and in some communities between Nadi and Sigatoka. It’s something other countries may have to prepare for in the coming months,” Sune Gudnitz, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Regional Office for the Pacific said.

 Jamardhan Pillay is a cane farmer just outside Fiji’s ‘Sugar City’ of Lautoka. He remembers the 1997/8 drought well and is worried a repeat could be just around the corner.

“I’m very much scared. Not only me, but all people in the Western and Northern Divisions, they are very much scared of this drought. 1998 was so bad. Most of the wells were dried up and the water was even less in the river,” Mr Pillay said.

It’s the sugar cane crushing season in Fiji and farmers right across the region are already starting to see the impacts of the country’s worsening drought on their harvests.

“It’s very bad for us farmers, as well as vegetable farmers. For all of us, we are experiencing a very heavy drought this season. We supplied some fertiliser during this season but we never received any rain for the fertiliser to melt, to dissolve. I think this is a very big matter. See this cane area, it’s all been drying because of the drought,” he said looking out over his struggling crop.

“It would be down about 25-30 per cent that my proceeds will be down. That’s very tough for my family,” he said.“It would be down about 25-30 per cent that my proceeds will be down. That’s very tough for my family,” he said.

“We worry that after everything has been harvested, it won’t grow and automatically next year our proceeds will be 50-60 per cent less. That’s very difficult for us and sugar cane is our bread and butter, we just can’t go without it.”

Sources: UNOCHA ROP Interviews, Fiji Meteorological Service, Fiji Times, 1998 UNDAC Report – Fiji Drought