Sunday, January 09, 2011

East Timor: Rains threaten food shortage and disease

By Janet Gunter

This year East Timor has not experienced a normal dry season. Much of the country has had rain all year, apparently a result of La Nia (related to the El Nio weather phenomenon). The capital Dili has repeatedly flash flooded. Local news outlets have reported both crops destroyed by rains, and even more worryingly that farmers have not planted this year in many places, as they are not used to preparing fields in the rain.

East Timor at the best of times is a net food importer, not able to produce surpluses to support city dwellers, and with a hungry season between crops. But this year, the situation is quite dire.

Mercy Corps aid worker Jim Jarvie explains

Normally, families prepare for up to two months of limited food in January and February between harvests, but this year the exceptional weather has meant they have already been suffering from lack of food for several months, with the next harvest still four months away if they are lucky. []

To exacerbate the problem, the roads that link these vulnerable communities with the capital city, Dili, are crumbling down the steep slopes as excessive water slides the roads. sometimes down hundreds of feet, into gullies. There is little to no support for these weakening families in increasing isolation. And they have little voice.

Blogger The Dili Insider provides a simple photographic reminder that for the past years in this season, East Timor has found itself in this situation, waiting for ships with imported rice to arrive.

Since 2006, the government has been importing and subsidizing rice. In previous years, there have been scandals related to these rice contracts (see Global Voices' 2009 coverage of The Ricegate scandal). It is not clear how much of the imported rice has ever reached these isolated rural communities with food deficits - most appears to have gone to town and city dwellers.

And given the serious situation facing Timorese farmers, the issue of food imports and access to imported food has taken center stage once again.

Opposition blogger Tatoli continues to criticize the ruling coalition [Tet] on its rice importation policy:

Maib foos mak tama iha Timor-Leste tonelada ba tonelada ms Povu Timor-Leste barak mak la hetan foos ne'e nia oin. Povu Timor-Leste kiak tiha ona, foos ms folin karun tan fila fali, enkuantu Sr. Germano da Silva Lobato (ministra Lucia Lobato nia la'en) sa'e karreta Hummer b-mai hodi soe rai-rahun ba Povu ki'ik-kiak.

But the rice that comes to Timor, ton after ton, many Timorese people never even see it. The Timorese people are already poor, the rice prices go up again, while Mr. Germano da Silva Lobato [Minister of Justice Lucia Lobato's husband who got rice importation contracts] goes around in a Hummer kicking up dust all over the meek, poor people.

Economist blogger Professor Almeida Serra believes that inflation in recent months is linked to the availability of subsidized, imported rice. He wrote in late October [pt]

Para a subida da taxa de inflao ter contribudo, nomeadamente, o quase desaparecimento do mercado do arroz do MTCI, subsidiado, sendo substituido por arroz importado comercialmente. Por exemplo, a taxa homloga de inflao dos cereais, razes e seus produtos onde se inclui o arroz e que representa 13,1% do cabaz do IPC foi, nos meses de Junho a Setembro, respectivamente de 14,1%, 16%, 11,1% e 11,3%.

The near disappearance from the market of the subsidized MTCI [Ministry of the Tourism, Commerce and Industry] rice, substituted by commercially imported rice, has contributed to increased inflation. For example, the rate of inflation for cereals, tubers and their products - where rice is counted, representing a 13.1% of the basic needs basket - was from the months of June to September respectively 14.1%, 16%, 11.1% e 11.3%

Bloggers report changes in the government's approach to rice. Lita at Notisia Negosio (Business News) writes [Tet]

Iha fulan Outubru 2010 MTCI sei hamenus intervensaun foos iha merkado, tamba fo hikas ona knar ba empresarios sira hodi nunee MTCI sei hare deit ba assuntos emergencia no sei atende deit iha fatin nebee deficil acesso ba mercado ( areas remotas ou rurais)

In the month of October the Ministry of the Tourism, Commerce and Industry [MTCI] will reduce its intervention in the rice market, because it has given this back to businesspeople so that the MTCI can focus on emergency matters and attend to those who live in places with poor access to markets (remote and rural areas).

One thing is clear: there will be little margin of error in food supply in East Timor over the coming months.

Mosquito-borne illness

Another potential impact of the rain is an increase in diseases transmitted by mosquitoes like malaria and dengue. The local media reported an upsurge in children being hospitalized in the month of October[Tet], with both patients and hospital officials citing the unceasing rains as a possible factor.

The World Health Organization's regional tracking of dengue revealed that as of September in East Timor, more than two times as many cases had been reported than in all of the previous year. Their briefing states:

The exact reason for the apparent upsurge in reported cases in different countries is not completely clear, but weather patterns, especially relative increases in rainfall are very likely to be an important feature.

The Timorese Ministry of Health has set up a team called Kondemal to look at the extraordinary prevalence [of disease] or outbreaks that can happen in the rainy season. The Ministry announces on its blog [Tet]

Ekipa Kondemal sei foti asaun seriu ba kazu extraordinaria nebe mosu iha tenpu udan. Liu husi servisu konjunta entre Ministeriu Sade liu husi Sade Distrito, Ho autoridades local hodi hatun no halakon moras nee liu husi atendementu hanesan Fogin (Rega susuk), Abatisasi no intervensaun seluk mak hanesan liu husi atendementu SISCA neeb hatoo husi Meja 4.

The Kondemal team will take serious measures against extraordinary cases that arise in the rainy season, through joint work between the central Ministry of Health and District Health institutions, with local authorities to reduce and get rid of these diseases through services like fumigation, abatisasi [use of abate powder in stagnant water], and other interventions like those treatment through the SISCA [mobile health clinics].

Robin Taudevin's 2006 photos of malaria and dengue patients at Bairro Pite Clinic are a dramatic reminder of what an impact these diseases have, particularly on children.

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