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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015