Voices from the field

Jamardhan Pillay

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 in 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.

Mr Pillay will get by this season but he’s heard about the El Niño event that’s brewing and he’s worried about what it might mean for next year’s crop.

“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.”

Reshmi Devi Singh

A drive north from Lautoka along Fiji’s north west coast offers a stark visual reminder of the severity of the drought. Even before the El Niño event has hit full strength, the normally soft, green tropical hills are brown and brittle with drought.

The drought is hot topic of conversation for farming families around the town of Ba where Reshmi Devi Singh lives with her mother in law on the family’s large farm growing sugar cane and vegetables, alongside a couple of milking cows.

“We are just talking about the drought, everyone, you meet everyone, they say oh too many drought, when is the rain going to come? When you go somewhere, there is talk about the rain. It’s a bit scary, we pray to God. Everybody praying, every religion they pray for the rain to come,” Reshmi Devi Singh said.

Like most in the region, she remembers the 1997/8 drought when the local pond gradually evaporated away.

“It was a very bad drought because all the cane dried at this time. The pond, it got dry. No water was there. No rain, we need water, no vegetables. Because farmers need rain and water to survive for their plants and everything like that,” Reshmi Devi Singh said.

The pond still has water for now and Reshmi Devi Singh is using the time she has left to prepare for leaner times ahead. They’re preserving food now so that they aren’t forced to buy expensive vegetables at the market when the drought hits with full force.

Rajeshwar Nath

Farmer Rajeshwar Nath is taking a break after rising at 2am to take his sugar cane to the mill on the other side of Lautoka.

“It’s a very busy time. I just cart my cane to the mill. We don’t get any proper sleep. Long hours we wake up,” Mr Nath said.

In addition to a grueling work load, he’s got a lot on his mind with a reduced crop this season and the potential for worse ahead.

“We are experiencing a big drought. There is a drop in our crop. There is about a 20-25 per cent drop. That will affect my income and it will affect my kids’ education. I am very much worried what will happen next year,” he said.

 

Aklesh Chandra

Fellow Lautoka farmer, Aklesh Chandra is more optimistic than his neighbours about the difficult drought months ahead.

The reason: a 115 foot deep bore hole, installed by his grandfather at the height of the 1997/8 drought to make his farm more resilient.

“1997/8 I remember it was a very bad drought. It was very bad for most of the families. We had a water problem. So my grandfather dug that bore down there. It was a very big support to us, my family and other families also they were using the water,” Mr Chandra said.