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Indonesian farmers suffer as drought hits home

Reuters - November 9, 1997

Kenneth Van Toll, Banjar Rejo – Mardjosantono waved his wiry arms over his head as he stood on the crusty sun-baked bottom of Lake Keruku in East Java.

"Usually there's water to the north, south and west of here. The water level reaches 3.5 metres (11.5 feet)," the slightly built farmer said gesturing across the dried-out lake.

"It's been dry like this for nearly eight months."

Right across Java, one of the world's most crowded islands with a population of around 120 million, farmers are struggling to eke out a living as they wait for long-delayed monsoon rains to come to Indonesia.

But in the national capital Jakarta, hundreds of kilometres to the west, ministers and scientists have only gloomy forecasts for the little people who are trying to survive by selling precious livestock for water.

The National Meteorology and Geophysics Agency has warned Indonesians on the tropical archipelago of 17,500 islands sprawled for 5,000 km (3,000 miles) along the equator that significant rains may not come until December – or even later.

Although sporadic rain fell in a number of parts of the archipelago in late October, the agency said dry winds from Australia are still dominant, forcing back seasonal rain clouds from the South China Sea and Indian Ocean and delaying the real monsoon.

Officials blame the continuing drought on the El Nino phenomenon, an upswelling of warmer water in the Pacific Ocean off the South American coast that affects global weather patterns.

Indonesia's monsoon rains normally start in September, and build up through the end of the year. This year, the rains are months late and drought is hitting home in the world's fourth most populous nation of over 200 million people.

The drought has also exacerbated bush and forest fires which have sent a choking, health-threatening smog across large areas of Southeast Asia and damaged key commodities such as coffee, cocoa and palm oil.

The drought has affected the whole archipelago, with hundreds of tribal people dying of disease and starvation in the rugged remote forests of Irian Jaya in the far east.

Official sources say the authorities are concerned at the potential for social unrest in the case of severe food shortages. The state logistics agency BULOG says it has enough rice in stock, however, and the government is keeping tight control on rice and sugar despite liberalising trade in other commodities.

Parched brown fields across Java – in area the size of Greece or the U.S. state of Alabama – now lie fallow waiting for the rainy season.

In many parts of the mostly Moslem nation villagers are already praying for rain every Friday in the mosques.

The daily reality for many villagers is the long walk in search of water.

"I come here every day," said Kejum, standing beside a roadside well in the Wonogiri regency of Central Java.

"It takes about three to four hours to fill the buckets. If it's not this dry, I can get water from a well near my house."

Sajogo, 75, recalled periodic droughts that hit the fatalistic and stoic farmers periodically, including a bad drought in 1991- 1992.

"My land has been dried out by the drought and we can't grow anything. Our income has dropped as a result," he said.

But unlike many people, Sajogo's family has not yet had to buy water, generally at about 100 rupiah (3 cents) a can.

Government tanker trucks are regularly distributing water, he said. Other villagers said they just did not wash as much.

"There are people who have sold their animals to buy water, but up until now I haven't heard of anyone who has died of starvation," Sajogo said.

But the rains may also prove a mixed blessing when they finally come. Environmental experts say baked ground and drought out vegetation will lead to floods sweeping across the land.

And the rain will have to be heavy and consistent to soften up rock-hard earth to make it tillable, and also to start replenishing depleted water tables to refill wells.