October 27, 2023
JAKARTA – A months-long famine in Papua Highlands province’s Yahukimo regency has killed at least 23 residents, forcing the government to scramble to provide disaster relief and plan for long-term solutions to avoid similar disasters from happening in the area in the future.
The famine has affected around 12,000 people living in over 13 villages in the regency, said Amuma district head Zakeus Lagowan on Tuesday. He blamed heavy downpours that have been happening since August for causing local crops to rot.
Fatalities doubled in the past week, Zakeus went on to say, rising from 11 deaths last week to 23 as of Oct. 23.
“However, we haven’t got the complete data yet because communication [with the affected] villages is only limited through transceivers,” Zakeus said on Tuesday, as quoted by kompas.id.
The Yahukimo famine has caught the attention of Jakarta. Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy held a coordination meeting on Wednesday to discuss the situation with several officials, including Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin and National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) head Suharyanto.
Authorities in Jakarta have sent disaster aid comprising 20 tonnes of rice and thousands of packages of ready-to-eat meals, protein biscuits and basic food staples to the affected region. They also sent 1,500 packages of hygiene kits, 50 sets of solar lights, five tents and Rp 1 billion (US$63,000) in operational funds.
Some of the aid, however, has yet to reach the famine-hit villages as they can only be accessed by air. The disaster agency has prepared a Cessna Grand Caravan cargo airplane with the capacity of 1.5 tonnes per flight.
“This is just the initial aid. We’ll coordinate with local administrations should the affected residents need more assistance from us,” Suharyanto said in a statement on Thursday.
The government also came up with several recommendations for mitigation measures to avoid similar incidents from happening in the future.
“We recommend the National Food Agency [BPN] to address the issue so food shortages in Papuan Highlands and Central Papua can be resolved permanently,” Muhadjir said after the meeting.
Among the concrete steps recommended to solve the issue is the development of crops that are more resilient to extreme weather. The government is also mulling opening food estates and building food storage facilities in the famine-prone areas.
The heavy downpours in Yahukimo have also triggered landslides that destroyed locals’ homes, Muhadjir said. According to the BNPB, at least 30 houses were heavily damaged by the landslides, although authorities were still confirming the data.
The famine in Yahukimo is the second known incident this year occurring in the Papuan Highlands, one of the new provinces in the country’s easternmost island which was inaugurated in November last year.
In August, at least six people in Puncak regency were killed in an extreme weather-induced famine. Cold weather and the lack of rain killed taro and yam crops commonly grown in the region, driving residents to scramble for food. Some people chose to eat the spoiled crops, causing them to fall ill.
A drought from June to August last year in Lanny Jaya also resulted in hundreds of people scrambling for food in Kuyawage district. Three died from hunger-related health issues.
Resource-rich but restive Papua Island has become a focus of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who aims to develop the country’s easternmost regions. Among strategic projects introduced by the President on the island is the food estate focusing on corn in Jayapura regency.
Food shortages, however, may not just be a problem in Papua, as the archipelago has been experiencing an extended dry spell due to the El Niño that tends to bring dry and hot air to Indonesia.