Tue, 26 Aug 2003

Gunungkidul, and the curse of drought

---------------------------------------------------------------- While experts predict that the annual monsoon will not arrive until at least November, the 700,000-plus residents of Gunungkidul regency have been severely affected by this year's drought. The Jakarta Post reporter Sri Wahyuni and contributor Syaiful Amin report from Yogyakarta. ----------------------------------------------------------------

Gunungkidul regency in southeastern part of Yogyakarta province is always portrayed as a barren, and poor region. It is not totally wrong.

Of its total area of 1,400 square kilometers, only 5.6 percent has an irrigation system. Fifty-two percent of the regency is limestone and dry fields.

Cassava is the food crop that best endures the severe lack of water when the dry season is prolonged. But cassava alone cannot alleviate the food shortage that often accompanies drought because it needs seven months from planting to harvesting -- unlike paddy which needs less than three months.

But since there is no irrigation system, farmers can only grow the water-guzzling rice during the rainy season.

Gunungkidul, official statistics show, produces some 700,000 tons of cassava a year. Locals usually sun-dry the produce and stockpile the gaplek (dried cassava) to substitute for rice in anticipation of the annual dry season. Although most of Gunungkidul folk take rice as their staple food, some rely on thiwul (snack made from dried cassava), or gaplek powder for their main meal during the hard season.

Topographically, Gunungkidul is divided into three main zones: Batur zone in the north, Wonosari Basin zone in the center, and Seribu Mountain Range zone in the south.

Of the three zones, Seribu Mountains, which consists of over 60,000 limestone hills and hundreds of caves, is the most barren and most affected by the severe drought that hits the regency almost every year.

This year, drought has hit some 82 villages in 11 of its 18 sub-districts, depriving over 120,000 residents of clean water. Gunungkidul has a population of 747,000.

Latest reports indicate that some 2,000 of those affected are suffering diarrhea and respiratory problems because of the resulting poor sanitation.

To alleviate the hardship that the regular drought brings to residents, the central and local governments have implemented various projects although they are far from adequate.

In 1994, the government drilled 15 public wells in the sub- districts of Rongkop, Semanu, Tepus, Panggang, and Paliyan. However, it did not really help because the capacity dropped to a mere two to 15 liters per second just a few years after.

In 2000, the government implemented a Japan-sponsored Rp 160 billion project, building 740 hydrant-networks to benefit 13,252 households and a subsequent project reached another 17,000 households.

But again, the water did not flow with officials saying that technical problems were to blame. In some villages, the network has been totally useless.

Realizing the mammoth problem, the local government has been helping the most seriously affected areas by distributing free water container trucks.

However, the method has not worked well either because trucks cannot reach the outlying areas because of the absence of adequate roads.

The lack of funds is of course another huge problem.

Severe drought is but one of the acute problems facing Gunungkidul residents. Poverty is another, which is associated with the high incidence of suicide.

A study conducted by Darmaningtyas, a graduate of Gadjah Mada University's school of philosophy, found 37 cases of suicide in 1999 and 30 cases in 2000. The study was later published in a book entitled Pulung Gantung: Menyingkap Tragedy Bunuh Diri di Gunungkidul. Economic hardship is cited as the main culprit in the high incidence of suicide cases.

Poverty has also driven many of the people of Gunungkidul into more prosperous places across Indonesia. Official statistics show that over 200,000 people have moved out of the regency in search of a better future.

The 2000 census revealed that only 3,500 people have college degrees and almost 259,000 people did not finish their elementary schooling for economic reasons.

Water is the song and prayer of Gunungkidul people. Only serious efforts by all stakeholders, especially the government, will alleviate their hardship.