Americans, New Guineans, et al. Share the Effects of El Nino

Global weather patterns have linked the welfare of people living on opposite sides of the planet for millennia. No recent occurrence demonstrates our connectedness and mutual vulnerability more than El Nino, which is currently disrupting climatic patterns around the world, leading to drought, forest fires, economic chaos, famine, and death in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

El Nino occurs, on average, every seven years, bringing drought to some regions of the world and heavier rainfall to others. Warmer water temperatures and absent trade winds in the eastern Pacific have deprived Southeast Asia and New Guinea of the cooling rains of the monsoon season.

El Nino's impact on this year's weather may be the most severe ever recorded. In the United States, this will mean fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic, warmer winters, lighter snowfall in the Midwest and East Coast, and potentially severe storms in Southern California. Yet, our rain is the source of other peoples' pain.

El Nino is wreaking havoc throughout Southeast Asia, where severe drought and decades of poor logging practices have produced forest fires covering 1.2 million acres of Indonesia's tropical rain forest. Unsustainable logging harvests, an expanding plantation economy that burns rain forest, and government-sponsored transmigration programs that have resettled tens of thousands of poor peasants in the fragile hinterlands of Indonesia have set the stage for the current environmental disaster.

El Nino also has devastated the island of New Guinea, where the combination of prolonged drought and associated frosts in the highlands have destroyed the food crops of many tribal peoples. Their subsistence economies and geographic distance from urban centers means that the people of New Guinea are less likely to have access to emergency food supplies. More than 400 deaths have been reported from the western half of the island, the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, and, without rain, this number is expected to grow.

An assessment of the drought recently released by the Australian Agency for International Development reports that 80,000 people in Papua New Guinea face a life-threatening situation, with no food available to them except for limited famine resources and other "bush" foods. The situation is deteriorating rapidly for another 200,000 people, who only have two months supply of food in their gardens.

THE famine and deaths in New Guinea aren't as removed from our daily lives as they may appear. El Nino reveals unseen connections between people and places ordinarily thought of as distant and remote. While the consequences are different, we share the effects of El Nino with the people of New Guinea. Our assistance is urgently needed. Congress and US aid organizations should move immediately to support efforts to alleviate the famine.

We also need to stop short-term economic interests from pushing environmental conditions to the brink of catastrophe. El Nino is just the match that lit the bonfire. These events underscore the need for policies supporting sustainable resource use, a lesson worth heeding in conjunction with UN-sponsored talks about the problem of global warming.

* Stuart Kirsch is a visiting assistant research scientist in the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. John Burke Burnett is special projects coordinator, Asia-Pacific, at Conservation International in Washington.

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