Indonesia: Food Shortages threaten 100,000 isolated islanders

Originally published
April Giri Haninuna, 32, clutches her three months old son, Aap, closer to her bosom as she softly says that her child has been having fever for a week. Her other two children, a boy, Sam, 8, and a girl Yani, 2, also frequently get sick. In the corner of her room lies her niece who is also sick. In a neighbouring hut, Rashmiana, 26, a mother of three, also says that lately her children have been getting sick more frequently. Both families had their last solid meal about five days ago. Now they are surviving on tua, a sweet sap from a palm tree. They drink tua whenever they feel hungry or thirsty. Tua has always been part of the local people's diet, but for many it is now increasingly becoming the only means of sustenance. Many families in Ingumurik in Rote Island have been living on a diet of tua since early this year.
The severe El Niño precipitated drought, which hit Indonesia starting last year, has wiped out corn and bean crop for the second consecutive year. The resulting food shortage now threatens the lives of the 100,000 residents of this remote island, located about two hours flying distance south east of Indonesia's cultural capital, Bali. This food shortage comes at a time when the country is deep in the midst of an economic and political crisis. Families like those of April and Rashmiana are used to surviving on bare necessities but they are now at a breaking point as they see their children weaken and fall sick. A "mok"---250 gramme tin of corn--which used to cost Rupiah 150, now sells for Rp 400. Even the locally produced, tua, has gone up from Rp 3,000 for five litres to Rp 10,000, leaving the poor few options.

Sole dependency on tua could have serious long term consequences especially for the under-fives and expectant mothers, warns Dr. Moh Jumali, supervisor, Government Public Health Centre, Baa, Rote. "Tua is good for health. It is rich in carbohydrates, but it has little protein, and no iron or vitamins. It cannot replace a normal diet," says Dr. Jumali. "Long term, low-protein and vitamin diet leads to lowered IQ levels. Short term this retards physical growth of the children and makes them more vulnerable to disease," says Dr. Jumali. Upper Respiratory Illness, diarrhea, dysentery and malaria are common to this area. He added that the lowered diet will also adversely affect pregnant women as well the foetus. Without proper diet lactating mother will produce less milk.

In May this year, the World Food Programme (WFP), announced that Indonesia has a shortfall of 5 million tonnes of rice. This is about 40 percent of the annual rice traded in the world market. Unless Indonesia receives food aid, the WFP has said that 7.5 million Indonesians will face acute food shortage. The Indonesian Rupiah which used to be Rp. 2,000 to the US dollar now stands at around Rp 15,000 to the dollar. With the weakened currency the country can ill afford food imports. Rashmiana and April's families are two among the 7.5 million people who are already suffering from food shortages. Unless food gets to these families in Rote, many of their children could begin to suffer from severe malnutrition. It is a question of time before the situation worsens, and frail children like Aap, will begin succumbing to malnutrition and disease.

World Vision Indonesia has appealed for US$960,000 to provide food over an 8-month period to 15,000 people living in 11 villages of Rote. World Vision's relief operations will provide food for work. An adult from each family will contribute three hours of labour to build irrigation canals and prepare land for agriculture. Food distribution will be based on the number of people in each family (on an average 1.5 kilos per family per day). Sanjay Sojwal can be contacted in Bangkok on mobile 661 8452807.

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