The mighty Sepik River is one of the great rivers of the world. Like the Amazon, it winds in serpentine fashion, down from mountains, timeless cloud forests, and through tropical rainforests and mangroves. The longest river in Papua New Guinea, it stretches for 1,126 kilometres. Following after the Fly and Mamberambo rivers, the Sepik River is the third largest river by volume.
It is the largest unpolluted freshwater system in Papua New Guinea and one of the largest and most intact freshwater basins in the Asia Pacific region.
The region is home to some of Papua New Guinea’s rarest plants and animals. Threatened species such as the New Guinea Harpy Eagle, Victoria Crowned Pigeon and the Northern Cassowary are common to the region.
Important waterbird and crocodile populations are supported by the 1,500 lakes and other wetlands associated with the basin.
The diverse habitats of the basin are globally significant for biodiversity. The area contains two Global 200 eco-regions, three endemic bird areas and three centres of plant diversity.
The Upper Sepik River Basin, which covers an area of 7.7 million hectares, was listed by the Papua New Guinea on its ‘Tentative List’ for nominations for World Heritage Status in 2006.
The Sepik runs through the provinces of Sandaun (formerly West Sepik) and East Sepik, with a small section flowing through the Indonesian province of Papua.
The Sepik River is one of the least developed areas in Papua New Guinea, and is home to approximately 430,000 people who depend almost entirely on products from the rivers and forests for their livelihoods.
It is perhaps the most linguistically and culturally diverse area on the planet with over 300 languages in an area the size of France.
The people of the Sepik have lived there for perhaps over a thousand years.
The people’s connection to the river is deeply spiritual and central to their lives.
‘Sepik River is here, that is why we are alive. If the Sepik River is destroyed then that means we will all will be destroyed too.’
– Villager from Yamenembu
The Sepik people share a totemic connection with crocodiles, and crocodiles feature prominently in the legends and rites of passage of various Sepik tribes.
The river is also the source of the communities’ practical needs.
Communities rely on the river for food, drinking water, washing and transport. During dry season, the fertile banks of the river become filled with fruit and vegetable gardens, and sago and tobacco plantations.
The local economy is built on the sale of sago, fish, freshwater prawns, eels, turtles and crocodile eggs. Crocodiles are also harvested for their skins and teeth.
Daily life also revolves around the river. Men paddle narrow dugout canoes full of goods for trade, women fish or make sago and children swing from trees to splash down into the river.
The Sepik is also a living breathing gallery of tribal art. The Sepik people’s rich spirituality draws from the beauty of their surroundings, and the objects they create reflect these beliefs. The Sepik people are renowned for their wood carved art, and galleries all around the world showcase their work.