Subject: Food shortages threaten

ABC Radio Australia

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EAST TIMOR: Food shortages threaten - 26/06/2007

The winners of the East Timor elections to be held this weekend will be facing a major challenge in office. Food shortages are threatening not only the poor but possibly national security. The World Food Program estimates there is a production shortfall of 30 per cent in East Timor's main food grains and is about to launch an international appeal for aid. Australia is being asked to take the lead in averting a crisis.

Presenter - Karon Snowdon Speaker - Tarek Elquindi, representative, World Food Program in East Timor - listen windows media

SNOWDON: As if East Timor hasn't enough problems, the weather has not been kind this year and for the second time a serious food shortage is threatening to destabilise the country. Maize is East Timor's most important crop and its expected production will fall by 30 per cent from the annual average - to just 70,000 tonnes. And with rice production also down by about 20 per cent, a crisis is looming says Tarek Elquindi from the World Food Program, or WFP.

ELQUINDI: A scale of food insecurity such as what we are going to get has a crisis not only as food insecurity but for national security. We are having a fragile situation politically and if the new government is not supportive or at least this part is taking out the concern and they concentrate on other things will allow the government to act as prompt as usual and also to build confidence with the population that this issue is dealth with and it will not be a concern now.

SNOWDON: The United Nations WFP and the Food and Agriculture Agency estimate up to 220,000 people or about one fifth of the population needs emergency food aid for six months from October. Existing statistics paint a grim picture, only about one third of households have enough food over the entire year and almost 50 per cent of the population suffer chronic malnutrition. In February this year, a severe shortage of rice caused not only hardship but contributed to political and social instability. Prices rose beyond reach for some and food warehouses were broken into. The WFP is planning to provide for those who can't afford to buy food at the markets, and will be appealing for international food aid within days. Longer term programs aim to rebuild irrigation systems and a food for work program hopes to keep disadvantaged farmers on their land and to improve it. Tarek Elquindi says children mother are particularly vulnerable at this time.

ELQUINDI: We should not forget about the safety net the category of the pregnant woman and the nursing woman as well as the children being born, infants. We should protect them by giving them supplementary feeding during this difficult time. By the way the mission has identified six districts which are the worst, not the poor only, but the worst of the worst. So these six districts we need to extend our activities there.

SNOWDON: So are people suffering food shortages now, are people going hungry? East Timor is a country with a very high proportion of malnutrition amongst children, for example, isn't it?

ELQUINDI: You are very right so that's why we would like really to be prepared to tackle the situation and do it gradually. I will not say the people will be hungry today but I would say September and October will be very hungry. In addition don't forget that we do have election and then new parliament and new government and new budget to be presented. All of that will take us up to the end of this year. And we don't expect that some activities and decision-making would be done before the following year.

SNOWDON: East Timor's Government has already approached Australia's AusAid agency for assistance in preparing a strategic food reserve and to assess commercial market supplies. But it will be asked to do more.

ELQUINDI: Very much it's a continuation of assistance and are very important for not only food security but also security of the country. We have to support the new government by stabilising the situation so AusAid adn Australia is very much needed to be a front runner in this race. 

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