Subject: IRIN: A nation faces chronic, widespread food insecurity

TIMOR-LESTE: A nation faces chronic, widespread food insecurity

DILI, 4 February 2008 (IRIN) - "It's when you see a child who looks nine but is actually 12 that you realise the extent of malnutrition in Timor Leste," Jean Flueren, the World Food Programme (WFP) country director, told IRIN. "Forty-six percent of children throughout the country are stunted," he said, and 42.6 percent of children under five are underweight, according to the WFP.

When the issue of food insecurity in Timor Leste gets mentioned outside its borders, it is usually about the capacity of the government and the humanitarian community to meet the nutritional needs of <> tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who have still not been able to return home nearly two years since the violence of April and May 2006.

But equally serious is chronic, widespread food insecurity in this country of some 1.1 million people. The poorest in Southeast Asia, it has a per capita income of only US$370 per year, and some 40 percent of the population fall below the national minimum standard of living of $0.55 per capita per day, according to a Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and WFP <> Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (December 2005/January 2006).

That analysis estimated that 20 percent of the population (some 213,000 people) were food insecure and a further 23 percent (some 244,000) highly vulnerable to becoming food insecure.

Natural disasters, lack of income

According to the WFP and other humanitarian agencies, two factors are making the situation worse.

One is a string of natural disasters, including recent drought, extensive flooding, wind damage and an infestation of locusts in some areas in 2007. (The locusts not only consumed crops but led to some farmers not replanting for fear their efforts would be wasted.)

The other is lack of income. "Food security is an immense problem because people have no purchasing power," the WFP country director told IRIN.

With the twin punches of nature's assault on agriculture, which leaves farmers inadequate goods to sell and inadequate income to plant new crops, and the widespread damage from conflict - with hundreds of thousands of livelihoods lost, markets disrupted and food price hikes - Timorese increasingly lack the means to engage in productive agriculture or the money to buy the essentials of a basic, nutritious diet.

No recent national assessment has been made, but a September 2007 report entitled <> WFP Dili Emergency Food Security Assessment found 25,000 people at "risk to lives" and needing immediate assistance, and 40,000 at "risk to livelihoods" - this in a city with a population of some 100,000 residents.

"The study found that while 50 percent of the IDPs we were feeding were not food insecure," said Flueren, "half of those not receiving food assistance [the normal Dili residents] were food insecure."

According to the FAO/WFP assessment, "the difference in terms of being at risk to lives or livelihoods between the IDPs and residents is minimal." Flueren said this is countrywide, not just in Dili.

In terms of food assistance to IDPs, the government, WFP and humanitarian agencies have a commendable track record, distributing full rations over two years to more people than are in the camps.

"There are 30,000-35,000 IDPs in Dili," said WFP's Flueren, "but we [with the government and other agencies] have been delivering food to 75,000."

In three Dili camps recently visited by IRIN, we could find no significant complaints about food assistance. "Occasionally" says, Joaquim Da Costa, an IDP and camp manager at the National Hospital camp site, "we have a problem with the food - a bad bag of rice expired."

Ending food aid dependency

The Ministry of Social Solidarity, as a part of its National Recovery Plan, aims to induce IDPs to return home by ending blanket distribution of food from February - reducing to half rations for two months before ending it completely in April.

Some IDPs in Dili told IRIN they were against such a food reduction policy, and one Dili newspaper, Diario Nacional, reported that in one camp IDPs said such cutbacks could result in civil unrest, including strikes and roadblocks.

As an incentive for IDPs to return home, families who agree to go will be provided with two months of rice rations (16 kilos per person).

Better targeted food aid

According to WFP's Flueren, "the Ministry of Social Services has ongoing programmes to provide food assistance as it can" and in the coming months the ministry, with humanitarian agencies, will target food assistance increasingly to particularly vulnerable individuals and communities. Flueren said: "We are now working with the government to develop and design training programmes for food insecure people that help increase livelihoods."

"Over the next few months alternative programmes will have to be put in place that ensure that people who are truly food insecure, such as the elderly, female-headed households and orphans, receive the support they require," said Finn Reske-Nielson, UN humanitarian coordinator and deputy special representative of the Secretary-General.

Reske-Nielson added: "Such alternative programmes would not necessarily just be the distribution of food because we have to move away from the dependence that has been created since the crisis of 2006."

"Food can play a role," he said, "but it could perhaps be in the context of food-for-work, school feeding programmes, but not blanket feeding to 70,000 people each month.

Tackling natural disasters

An important complement to the effort to increasingly target food secure individuals and communities, are efforts to establish mechanisms to effectively warn against and deal with natural disasters. Secretary of State for Social Assistance and Natural Disasters Jacinto Rigoberto Gomes, told IRIN: "We are establishing a disaster information centre to deal with heavy wind, landslides, earthquakes, droughts, flooding and other natural disasters." He said it was being done with the support and advice of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Development Programme.

Such a project, if it can get the financial support and communications capacity needed, said Gomes, will go a long way in preparing residents for disasters and mitigating their effects. In Timor Leste that will help immeasurably not just in saving lives but in reducing crop and food destruction, thus enhancing food security.


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