“This year’s dry season is very hard for us,” Taswin, 42, a farmer in the town of Indramayu told Aljazeera.  “We even have to buy drinking water,” he said, a clove cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth.

Along the 20km of pitted dirt road to Taswin’s farm in the nearby village of Cantigi, small groups of men and women sit languidly chatting in the sunshine. The river that once ran through the village is now a sandy bed, a playground for the children. The rice paddies are dry and deserted. No crops have survived the blazing heat and the scarcity of water.

West Java is the area of Indonesia hardest hit by the drought, with 20,000 hectares, or 15% of the province’s rice fields, turned parched and barren.

This year’s crop failure has resulted in more than 52 billion rupiah ($6.1 million) in losses to the region’s farmers, according to Dady Mulyadi, head of the West Java agriculture office.

Praying for rain

The drought is also threatening around 2000 farming families with food shortages in several parts of the province including Indramayu and Cianjur, the main rice producers for West Java and Indonesia's sprawling capital, Jakarta.

"Normally we can still harvest our rice paddy fields twice a year.  But this year we can’t harvest anything at all”

Asyani,
Indonesian farmer

Indonesia is often hit by drought during the mid-year dry season, but the extreme delay of rain this year has pushed farmers beyond what they can sustainably manage.

“We experience droughts every year,” said Asyani, 50, another Cantigi farmer sitting in his small hut overlooking barren fields. “But normally we can still harvest our rice paddy fields twice a year.  But this year we can’t harvest anything at all,” he said.

The crops' failure has forced many villagers to change their main staple from rice to dried cassava, locally known as “tiwul”. 

“We are forced to eat tiwul, cooked with only a handful of rice,” said Tono, 36, farmer in Central Lampung said.

The local government office says that about 80% of the 800 families in Sendangrejo village, Central Lampung, Sumatra, have resorted to living off the resilient, starchy cassava and corn, as they can no longer afford rice.

Late response

Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri has declared an emergency and allocated 150 billion ($17.7 million) from the emergency fund of the current 2003 state budget to finance the programme.

“The president instructed us to begin the programme immediately,” said Jusuf Kalla, Coordinating Minister for Public Welfare, after a cabinet meeting in August.

Meanwhile, water scarcities are forcing villagers to recycle what little water they have.

“We are reusing our dishwater to cook our food or to bathe,” said Aseli, 50, pouring a bucket of dirty water into an aluminium cooking pot.

Aseli is a farmer who lives with his two wives and two daughters in Cantigi.

Similar stories are common in the barren and poor region that lies in the southeastern part of Yogyakarta province in Central Java. Over 120,000 people in the area have been deprived of clean water since the drought began in June.

Free medicine

The latest reports show that more than 2000 are suffering from diarrhoea and respiratory problems because of poor sanitation.

 “The main problem we find here is respiratory ailments,” Dr Zainal from the local community health centre in Indramayu said.  He said that due to crop failure, most villagers did not have the money to get their families to the community health centre.

“To anticipate this, we are doing continuous surveys and visits to the community,” he added.

“The early coming of the dry season or tropical cyclones are just minor pattern changes in the weather. This should not be a problem, if we have a healthier environment”

Djaelanik,
Weather forecaster

Indonesia’s health minister, Achmad Sujudi announced in August that the government would provide free medicine to deal with the impending health crisis and send doctors  to community health centres across the drought-affected areas. “We’ll also provide education in villages on how to counter diarrhoea and respiratory problems,” he said.

Causes

This year’s drought was caused by the early arrival of the dry season as well as by a series of tropical cyclones, say scientists at Indonesia’s Meteorology and Biophysics Agency (BMG).

Djaelanik a BMG forecaster told Aljazeera that the cyclical drought and floods in Indonesia were partly a result of the environmental destruction plaguing the country.

“The early coming of the dry season or tropical cyclones are just minor pattern changes in the weather. This should not be a problem, if we have a healthier environment,” he said. 

There has been a steady reduction of areas that would normally retain water, due to unrestricted urban development and irresponsible logging activities. Illegal logging has become a serious problem for Indonesia with an estimated two million hectares of forest lost every year. 

Nurhidayati, a campaign officer with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) blames the government for its complacency in tackling the crisis.

“It all comes down to the ecosystem imbalances,” she said. “So far, the government does not seem to have a clear environmental agenda.”

The government’s most recent annual report did not touch on environmental issues at all.

Global crisis

Indonesia’s water shortage is a symptom of the crisis facing much of the world.

More than 1.2 billion people around the globe lack access to safe and clean water according to UN figures.  Between 5 and 7 million die every year from water related diseases, including 2.2 million children under the age of five.

The United Nations has pledged to reduce these figures by half by 2015 under its Millennium Development Goals scheme.

But until individual governments make good on their commitments to supply populations with clean water, the number of those hit by drought is set to exceed these already disastrous levels.