Drought forces villagers to forage for jungle leaves

Hundreds of tribal people have died of starvation and millions more are at risk from a chronic drought on the huge tropical island of New Guinea. Severe frost following a six- month dry period, caused by the meteorological phenomenon El Nino, has wrecked crops. Richard Lloyd-Parry reports from Mount Hagen.

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."

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape