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Race to rescue volcano islanders

Several thousand people remain stranded without adequate food, water or shelter on a remote south Pacific island following repeated volcanic eruptions, local authorities said on Friday.

Five people have already died after drinking ash-contaminated water on Manam in Papua New Guinea, and about 7 900 who have been evacuated are struggling to survive in malaria-infested emergency care centres with few facilities.

Government officials said on Friday that it could take another four days to rescue the remaining 2 000 to 3 000 islanders.

They admit they have no way of predicting if there will be another major eruption in that time.

Norman Philamon, the head of the provincial disaster services office, described the situation as critical on the island, which lies 16km off the mainland in Madang province and 560km north of the capital, Port Moresby.

”All the houses and [crop] gardens in the 16 villages on Manam have been destroyed,” he said. ”The water sources have been contaminated with ash. The people still there are living under tarpaulins on the beach, eating little but rotten fruit that has fallen from the trees.”

The volcanic activity began on October 24, but that eruption caused little damage because the wind blew most of the ash and rock out to sea. In mid-November, the wind changed direction and the volcanic debris started causing damage.

On November 28, there was another, more violent eruption, which was described by an Australian vulcanologist, John Seach, as the biggest this year.

”Since then, it’s been like a volcanic laboratory,” said Seach. ”Ash was spewing up to 30 000 feet [9 000m] into the air, lava was fountaining out and rocks were crashing down the mountain.”

The changing winds brought heavy rain that caused most of the damage, according to Jeffrey Phillip, the head of disaster relief at the Papua New Guinea Red Cross.

”So much ash had fallen on the houses that when the rain came it turned to mud,” he said. ”As the houses are not very sturdy they just started falling apart.”

The evacuation effort was hampered by a lack of adequate ships and insufficient funds to pay for them.

A cargo ship was eventually chartered for £50 000 a week, a huge sum for the impoverished government, and converted to hold 600 to 700 people. Every few days it has had to leave the area to collect more fuel.

Bruce Grant, of the United Nations Children’s Fund, said the situation in the camps is desperate.

”These are in a very confined space,” he said. ”There are no latrines so they have to be built, but these people have never used latrines so it’s a job explaining why it’s necessary to use them.”

Many people had started falling ill, said Phillip.

”Malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections, ear and nose problems and illnesses resulting from drinking contaminated water are the most common problems.”

Philamon gave warning that the situation could deteriorate further unless the international community provides assistance in excess of £1-million.

”We estimate this crisis will last about three to six months, depending on the volcanic activity,” he said. ”It will cost about one million kina [about £170 000] a month.”

The authorities hope the Manam inhabitants will eventually be able to return to the island.

”We will encourage them to grow sweet potatoes at first, as these can bear [fruit] in three months, and then look at other crops,” said Philamon. — Guardian Unlimited Â

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