Geoff Spencer, Jakarta – A drought that has destroyed crops across the Indonesian archipelago and other Pacific islands could force villagers to begin eating a famine diet of insects, banana tree roots and leaves, an aid official said Tuesday.
"The foods are not very pleasant but they keep you alive," Bryant Allen, who heads Australia's disaster relief team in Papua New Guinea, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Up to one million people are threatened with famine, Papua New Guinea officials say.
Meteorologists have blamed the drought on El Nino, the nickname for a periodic warming of waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Forecasters warn that relief may be far off because El Nino could delay monsoon rains for weeks.
Indonesia's Antara news agency has quoted government officials as saying at least 250 people have died of hunger or cholera on New Guinea since mid-August as gardens have withered and streams and wells have run dry.
The dry weather has created ideal conditions for forest and scrub fires, which have burned out of control, creating thick, health-threatening haze that also has choked Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern Philippines.
Smog grounded relief flights Tuesday across the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea.
"There are fires and smoke everywhere we go," said Wally Wiley of the Missionary Air Service, which delivers food, medicine and other supplies to more than 200 remote villages in Irian Jaya province.
"Sometimes it's so thick we can't take off because of the lack of visibility," said Wiley, whose organization is headquartered in Redlands, Calif.
The fires pushed air pollution levels in Kuching, in the Malaysian portion of Borneo Island, to an all-time high Tuesday. In some areas, visibility was cut to a matter of feet. Kuching's international airport remained closed, as did schools businesses and factories. In Borneo's Sarawak state, mass evacuations might be necessary if the pollution worsens, said Mohamed Rahmat, Malaysia's information minister. About 5,000 people were seeking treatment daily at local hospitals for respiratory ailments.
Scrub fires trapped 17 hikers Tuesday on the slopes of a volcano in central Java, said Lt. Col. Sangodi, the police chief of Pemalang, 150 miles east of Jakarta. The missing hikers were believed to be Indonesian.
A search was under way by rescue teams of soldiers, police and more than 100 forestry officers, Antara reported.