Because of their distinct features such as biodegradability and favourable engineering properties, naturally occurring materials including jute and coconut fibres have been used increasingly in numerous geoengineering applications in recent years. However, these materials can sometimes decompose rapidly when subjected to adverse environmental conditions, resulting in severe degradation of their engineering characteristics and consequently causing damage to the design target. This paper presents a numerical approach where the finite-element method (FEM) is used to estimate the influence that the degradation of natural fibre drains can have on soil consolidation. A subroutine which can describe the reduction in drain discharge capacity over time is incorporated into the FEM model. Different cases including those varying the rate and time-dependent form of biodegradation are examined in this paper. The results of this investigation indicate that the dissipation of excess pore pressure can be hampered significantly if drains decay too early and speedily, particularly when the discharge capacity falls below 0·03 m3/d. Different rates of decay can impose different consolidation responses in the surrounding soft soil. Application of the proposed FEM to compare with laboratory data indicates an acceptable agreement between the predictions and the measurements.