FAO GLOBAL INFORMATION AND EARLY WARNING SYSTEM ON FOOD AND AGRICULTURE

SPECIAL ALERT No.296 :
EAST TIMOR

Date: 28 September 1999

(Circulated only in situations where foodcrops or supply conditions give rise to concern)

FRAGILE SECURITY SITUATION IMPEDES URGENTLY NEEDED HUMANITARIAN AND FOOD DISTRIBUTION OPERATIONS IN EAST TIMOR

Since the FAO Special Alert on East Timor earlier this month, the deployment of United Nations peace enforcement forces has brought uneasy calm to Dili, the capital, but the overall security situation remains highly volatile, with sporadic killings and armed infringements continuing. Although, the multinational force is gaining more access, the situation outside Dili still remains highly dangerous, hampering urgently needed humanitarian operations. The full extent of earlier massacres and destruction still remains unclear, but there is growing evidence that large numbers of people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced from homes. Currently it is estimated that 400 000 people remain hidden in mountain areas or are housed in make-shift camps in East and West Timor. The majority of the displaced, up to 60 percent, are from rural areas. The plight and food security of these people, especially the old and children in hostile areas, gives grave cause for concern. Many are said to be living in fear and scavenging for food, whilst there is desperate need for drinking water as the height of the dry season approaches.

The food situation is becoming increasingly critical. The extreme shortage of food has meant that a number of Government food stores have been rampaged by desperate and hungry people, with over 8 000 tonnes of food looted so far. The World Food Programme (WFP), the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), ICRC and several other humanitarian organisations, are making concerted efforts to provide food and relief assistance, but are being impeded by logistical and security hazards.

It is provisionally estimated that as many as 80 percent of the population of some 900 000 people, will need food assistance for an indeterminate period, once the security and transport situation allows. To date some 130 tonnes of food aid and blankets have been air dropped by WFP to areas considered most at risk of shortages. Various pledges for international food and humanitarian assistance have already been made, which will be channeled through the UN, bilateral agencies and NGOs. A WFP emergency operation for 4 488 tons of food aid for 150 000 displaced people for two months was approved on 15 September.  It is understood that the ICRC also recently delivered a shipment of food for 100 000 people to Dili. 

In West Timor, an estimated 215 000 displaced East Timorese , some deported forcibly, are under serious threat from renewed violence by the militia. Of these there are an estimated 42 000 children under five and 6 000 pregnant women who are at particular risk of poor living conditions. There are also fears that many of the 31 refugee camps in West Timor are controlled by the militia, who are reported to be seeking reprisals. The main camps at Atambua, Kupang, Belu and Timor Tengah Utara are also grossly overpopulated and lack vital supplies of food, medicine and water. At present the food situation in West Timor is not considered as desperate as that in East Timor. However, if the security situation worsens and humanitarian operations are delayed, the situation could deteriorate rapidly.

The affects of severe food shortages have been exacerbated by mounting health problems, with diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria being the principal concerns. There are fears that many health problems could result in chronic illnesses as the health sector has been crippled by the devastation and large numbers of doctors and health works have left.

The short term outlook for agriculture and food production in East Timor is bleak, due to the scale of destruction and civil disruption. Many farmers have had to abandon farms and, together with traders, have lost vital stocks of seeds and fertilizer. At this time of year, land preparation should normally be underway for the main planting season to commence in the next few weeks to coincide with rains from the north East monsoon. The scale of the crisis, however, almost certainly means that this will not be possible, which will compound food shortages over the next year. In addition to food, therefore, once the situation allows there will also be urgent need for rehabilitation assistance with seeds, fertilizers and tools.

A UN interagency mission, including FAO, is currently visiting East and West Timor to undertake a multi-sectoral assessment of humanitarian needs and formulate a flash UN appeal to address the most urgent needs. In addition, a fuller FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission is to be fielded as soon as the security situation permits.

 

This report is prepared on the responsibility of the FAO Secretariat with information from official and unofficial sources. Since conditions may change rapidly, please contact Mr. Abdur Rashid, Chief, ESCG, FAO, (Fax: 0039-06-5705-4495, E-Mail (INTERNET): GIEWS1@FAO.ORG) for further information if required.

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