The Antara News Agency in Jakarta reported yesterday that 400 people in Irian Jaya, the Indonesian-controlled western half of the island, had so far died of malnutrition. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), in the eastern half of the island, villagers in parts of the remote highlands have been reduced to foraging for jungle ferns after a severe frost which has blighted vegetables already shrunk by the worst drought in living memory.
In Mount Hagen, the capital of Papua New Guinea's Western Highlands province, food prices have tripled, and in the worst-hit areas local people are surviving for days at a time on jungle leaves. The El Nino weather pattern, caused by warming sea temperatures in the Pacific, has reduced mountain streams to a trickle, 10m-deep wells have run dry, and hundreds of people have deserted mountain valleys in search of water.
Local government officials stress that it is not yet a "Somalian or Ethiopian situation", but unless heavy rains begin soon, they predict a catastrophe which will last well into next year. The highest estimate for PNG, so far unconfirmed, put the number of dead at around 70, most of them elderly. But 31/2 million people, 85 per cent of the population, are subsistence farmers, many of them dependent on crops such as sweet potato which take a long time to grow. If the wet season does not begin soon, it will not only wipe out this season's crops, but also make it impossible to sow for next year.
"The problem is that we don't know if we're at the end of it, or in the middle of it," said Jack Karali of the Western Highlands provincial government. "The people haven't started killing their pigs yet, and there's always something they can eat from the jungle. But in the last three or four weeks, things have started to fall apart. If we continue without rain for the next month or so, we will be in serious trouble."
Papua New Guinea is a poor country whose central government is a substantial beneficiary of foreign aid handouts. A team of Australian experts has been conducting a survey of the entire country to assess priorities, but any relief effort faces enormous logistical and cultural difficulties.
Showers over the last three days have raised hopes that the crisis may be over, but they have also swamped dirt roads leading to some of the worst hit areas. This morning, officials from Mount Hagen will attempt to convoy food to the frost-stricken Tambul district, but relief efforts are complicated by the threat of so-called "rascals" - bandits who hold up vehicles, especially on slippery or rutted sections of road.
"They know that they will get the food eventually," says Mr Karali. "But we can't rule out the possibility that certain people may try to get their hands on it a bit earlier by unofficial means."