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Drought Ends in Papua New Guinea

February 18, 1998

KAMULAI, Papua New Guinea (AP) _ Daniel Odei points to a withered pandanus palm and tells how he and others in his village lived for months on its bitter nuts and the leaves from other bushes.

Then he smiles, baring teeth and lips stained red by the betel nut chewed like tobacco by many Papua New Guineans: ``We are eating now. We were hungry for a long time.″

The harshest days of Papua New Guinea’s more than yearlong drought, the worst in a century, appear to be over.

Rain is falling again along the country’s jagged mountainous spine, the Owen Stanley Range, refilling rivers, softening hard farmland and bringing the jungle back to life.

The state of emergency that existed to cope with the threat of mass starvation is easing. Now the country, the eastern half of the Pacific island of New Guinea north of Australia, is coming to terms with huge health and economic problems resulting from the drought.

At its height in late 1997, one-quarter of the country’s 4 million people were believed at risk of starvation. Thousands were relying on emergency food aid and hundreds of thousands more were living on ``famine foods″ scrounged from the jungle.

An international relief effort is continuing; a joint Australia-Papua New Guinea military operation is flying food donated by former colonial power Australia, the United States, France, Germany and elsewhere to 52,000 people who might die without it.

Private agencies, such as the international Red Cross, are helping hundreds of thousands more in marginally less urgent danger.

``We are here to avert a major disaster,″ said Annmarree O’Keeffe, the Australian head of the government’s relief program.

They appear to have succeeded.

With the rain, air force sorties that have carried food soon will carry seed for the vegetable gardens on which up to 80 percent of the population depend. Replanting has begun, but staples like kaukau _ sweet potato _ will not be ready for four months to a year.

Malaria, dysentery and typhoid are more prevalent than usual because of the drought, aid workers say.

The news magazine Pacific Islands Monthly reported in its February edition that at least 500 people have died, mostly from disease. The extent is, however, still being assessed, and army medical teams are flying in to remote areas.

In Onange, in Central Province, 6-year-old Suzanne Heg lies in a tin-shed medical center, weakened by anemia brought on by a lack of iron or flea bites, local nurse Sabina Palesar said.

Suzanne’s father, Alfonse, carried her for two days through the mountains to get treatment. He said she became sick because there was not enough to eat.

``We lived on just some green leaves until the (emergency food) supplies came,″ Alfonse Heg said.

Palesar said 40 deaths were reported in the region in December and January. There were more in smaller hamlets that dot the countryside, but she said they were not reported because villagers were too weak to bring in the bodies.

In Yapsiei, on the other side of the mountains, some children have swollen bellies and scaly, flaking skin. Efforts to map the state of people’s health in rural provinces are being hampered by rough terrain and the migration of people looking for food.

``We are seeing evidence of nutritional diseases, parasitic problems such as gastric worms and respiratory infections,″ physician Karl Bauer said.

The drought also has hurt the nation’s economy, already struggling because of Asia’s financial turmoil and falling world commodity prices.

The government has stepped in to stem a falling local currency and is warning of austere times ahead. Negotiations for a $90 million aid-for-reforms package are under way with the World Bank.

Papua New Guinea is largely dependent on agriculture and mining. Crops largely have failed and demand for lumber has fallen. The drought closed for extended periods two huge gold and copper mines that rely on normally mighty rivers for processing and barge transport.

Export earnings from mining and agriculture, normally worth about $1.8 billion a year, may have been slashed by $275 million in the last half of 1997. Papua New Guinea’s gross national product is about $2.75 billion.

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