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Irian Jaya: Airlift for famine victims

18-02-1998 News Release 98/07

In the dense forests of Irian Jaya there are no roads and no navigable rivers. The only way to reach the region's famine-stricken inhabitants is by helicopter. Apart from the logistic difficulties, the ongoing relief operation is hampered by frequent clashes between the OPM ( Organisasi Papua Merdeka , or Free Papua Movement) and the Indonesian security forces.

Irian Jaya is suffering the effects of an unprecedented drought which could threaten the livelihood of up to 150,000 people in areas south of the mountains. Even if the long-awaited rains do come, the next crop of sweet potatoes will not be ready for harvesting before June. What is more, the population has not been able to preserve the cuttings needed to cultivate this staple food, and the conflict raging in Mimika district makes hunting and fishing virtually impossible.

Between October and December 1997 the mortality rate rose to alarming levels, especially among children and the elderly, and several hundred people died. In some villages up to 80 per cent of the population were malnourished. For the past three months the Indonesian Red Cross Society (PMI) and the ICRC have jointly been conducting a major humanitarian operation. Teams fly out of the Timika base every day, bringing food and medical supplies to the villages affected by the drought and famine. Many of the people in the region, weakened by hunger and the constant moves forced upon them by the poor security conditions, are also suffering from malaria, dysentery and respiratory ailments.

The helicopter used for the emergency operation has to make several round trips daily. Agronomists and nutrition ists also travel to the area to set up a programme designed to restore the population's self-sufficiency as rapidly as possible. So far, the PMI and the ICRC have distributed 67 tonnes of food, seed and medicines to nearly 15,000 people in 19 villages in the security zone.