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El Nino brings drought, hunger to Indonesia and South Pacific

Ngadimin in his field in Ketung Miri village in Indonesia's Special Region of Yogyakarta in October 2015. Normally the field would be flooded, but his rice harvest failed due to drought so he planted tobacco and chilis. Jonathan Vit/IRIN

Rice is so central to life in this tiny mountain village in Indonesia that Ngadimin uses the harvests as his calendar.

The weathered farmer breaks the year into harvests. There's the first harvest, then the second, with a growing season of alternative crops in between. It hasn’t rained since “the second rice,” said Ngadimin, who uses just one name like many Indonesians.

That harvest was about two months ago, before Indonesia was hit with one of the worst droughts in five years, causing plants to wilt on the stem, and water levels to drop to precarious levels. His fields would normally be flooded this time of year, but the dried, cracked earth is evidence of drought, and Ngadimin has had to switch to crops that don’t need much water.

"We plant rice during rainy season, (but) now we are planting chili,” he told IRIN.

Local rice production was down 20 percent at the last harvest in Ketung Miri, according to the village chief, Sugianto, and it could be months before farmers can plant again.

Farming communities throughout Indonesia are struggling with drought as rising sea temperatures associated with this year’s El Nino weather phenomenon affect rainfall across the globe. Governments in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Samoa report similar situations as the region struggles to cope with what is shaping up to be the worst El Nino event since 1997-1998, when the weather phenomenon caused sugarcane harvests to fail and closed schools in nations across the South Pacific.

Indonesia’s disaster mitigation agency reported that, by the end of August, there were drought conditions in 84 provinces affecting some 22 million people. It warned that November’s onset of the rainy season would likely be delayed into next year.

The Indonesian government announced plans this month to resume rice imports by the end of the year as national rice stocks, battered by the drought and an increase in subsidised rice handouts for the poor, continued to drop. In a typical year, the planting season would already be under way, but in villages like Ketung Miri, fields remain fallow or stocked with secondary commodities like tobacco, chili and corn that require less water than rice.

Prices rising, hunger looming

Indonesia’s poor and middle class remain particularly vulnerable to price shocks. According to World Bank data, nearly 100 million people hover around the poverty line. Nationwide, the UN World Food Programme estimates that 37 percent of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished.

“I am concerned about what might happen if the rains don’t come,” said Anthea Webb, the WFP representative in Indonesia.

“This is such a big country with such an important rice culture that if there are impacts on production when prices are already very high, I would be very worried about the nutritional situation, which is quite precarious compared to other countries in the region.”

Webb said she was most concerned about those living in the Indonesian archipelago’s underdeveloped eastern provinces like East and West Nusa Tenggara where many of the country’s most vulnerable people live.

“They tend to have difficulty meeting their own needs when production is at the best of times,” she said.

Regional drought

The situation is worse in the island nations of the South Pacific, according to the regional office of the UN emergency aid coordination body OCHA. Fiji is experiencing serious water shortages, with the local government making emergency deliveries to 67,000 people, or 13 percent of the country’s population. Government officials estimate that sugarcane production has fallen 25 percent since the drought began.

Tropical cyclone Pam battered the nation of Vanuatu, destroying water tanks and decimating crops across the country. Emergency response teams estimate that more than 90,000 people are in need of food and water deliveries, especially in the country’s hard-hit regions like North Tanna, where food shortages have already claimed at least one life.

It’s been at least two months since rain fell in most affected South Pacific countries, raising concerns that the region may be in need of long-term humanitarian aid throughout the coming year, explained Sune Gudnitz, regional Pacific office head of OCHA.

“That is a long time for a community to go without water or food crops,” Gudnitz said. “Communities, governments and humanitarian partners need to prepare now for a long road ahead.”

In Ketung Miri, farmers like Ngadimin are attempting to ride out the drought with alternative crops. Ngadimin planted cabe rawit, the small, fiery chilis that are a staple ingredient in Indonesian cooking. But so did everyone else in this drought-hit region, causing prices to plummet as much as 70 percent.

It’s enough to leave Sugianto worried for the future of his village.

“We are in difficult times,” Sugianto said. “The costs are already so high and then when we do sell (our crops) it’s for no money.”


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