Fri, 22 Aug 2003

President orders immediate distribution of free-rice

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja and Ainur R. Sophiaan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Surabaya

President Megawati Soekarnoputri ordered Cabinet ministers on Thursday to start emergency measures by Monday to help people who are suffering due to the drought across Java.

The priority program will be the distribution of 20,000 tons of free rice for 250,000 farmers who cannot work their land and the dispatch of more water tanks.

"The President instructed us to begin the program by Monday, underlining that we need to ensure food security and clean water for these farmers," Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla said after a Cabinet meeting.

He said the government had allocated some Rp 150 billion (US$17.7million) from the reserved emergency fund of the current 2003 state budget to finance the program.

"These farmers are unable to work their land due to lack of water, and we calculate that it will effect around one million people if we do not start the program immediately," he said.

For clean water, Kalla said the government would send an additional 200 water tanks per day. Currently there are some 800 water tanks trucks operating every day, serving around four million people whose areas are affected by the drought.

Java is affected the most by the dry season, the most severe since 1997, with the Meteorology and Geophysics Agency (BMG) predicting that the season will peak in September. The agency also forecast that rain will only fall in October.

Kalla said that despite the fact that this year's drought was not as bad as that of 1997 as a result of the El Nino phenomenon, the worsening quality of the environment had decreased the capability of land to reserve water and had a massive impact on farmland.

The government has estimated that around 100,000 hectares of farmland on the densely populated island will suffer from crop failure, while another 450,000 hectares from water deficit.

The harvest failure is expected to reduce rice production by up to 300,000 tons this year.

Meanwhile in Surabaya, Minister of Settlements and Regional Infrastructure Soenarno said that a labor-intensive program would begin late this month for 148,000 farmers in the East Java regencies of Lamongan, Tulungagung and Bojonegoro.

The government has allocated Rp 28.5 billion for the program, which will include the repair of irrigation canals and renovation of school buildings to give employment for farmers during the dry season.