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Update No. 98/01 on ICRC activities in Irian Jaya

24-03-1998 Operational Update No 98/01

 Fine-tuned assistance to cope with the impact of drought and famine  

Following the ICRC's Budget Extension Appeal of 26 January to fund relief activities and medical assistance for Irian Jaya's drought-stricken population until the next harvest, ICRC/PMI ( Indonesian Red Cross Society) teams have been conducting further surveys to assess the extent of the famine and have taken the appropriate measures in terms of direct aid (food and medical supplies) and indirect assistance (agronomy programmes).

The surveys show that conditions vary considerably from one valley to another, and even within one valley, depending on the weather, altitude, assistance received in the past and the coping mechanisms of each individual community. To respond effectively to the food and medical needs of each, the situation has to be assessed continuously and relief action needs to be adapted accordingly. Some areas may recover more quickly, while in other, more severely affected areas with high malnutrition rates, it may be necessary to extend the operation beyond the six months originally foreseen until the next harvest.

 Situation in the Mimika regency now stabilized  

Since the ICRC/PMI team began working in this region, to the east of Timika, in early December 1997, the nutritional status of the Irianese has stabilized. Following an assessment of the region's 19 villages, a plan of action was drawn up for the provision of food aid, medical care and agricultural assistance over a six-month period. The fine-tuning of food deliveries enabled the ICRC-chartered helicopters based in Timika to be used in the most cost-effective way. One helicopter, assisted by Twin Otter shuttle flights, was sufficient to cover relief distributions in this wide expanse of jungle.

To date, some 15,000 people there have been assisted with protein-rich biscuits and rice.

While lack of food is the major problem facing people in the area, malnutrition reduces resistance to the region's endemic diseases such as malaria, dysentery and respiratory infections. Scabies and other skin infections are on the increase, while worm infestation is generalized.

The ICRC/PMI team has given on-the-spot treatment to seriously ill patients during their assessment visits and cases of malaria have either been treated individually or on a community level. In some villages the incidence of this mosquito-borne disease has been brought down from 80% of the population to 15%.

As the medical and nutritional situation slowly returns to normal, the ICRC plans to decrease its direct food aid and concentrate on other drought-affected areas in the Indonesian province. 

 Simultaneous action in Baliem Valley  

The food situation of the population in the Baliem Valley is similar to that encountered when the ICRC first started assessing needs in the Mimika regency. Last year's punishing drought sent sweet potato production (the main food staple, accounting for about 90% of the energy intake) into a steep decline, forcing the people to eat the seed normally used for planting.

The ICRC's aim is to help the Irianese regain a degree of self-sufficiency. It is therefore important to encourage them to grow vegetables in their gardens and gather food, while at the same time preventing them from harvesting the ir sweet potato crop prematurely so as to avoid a food crisis later in the year. It is estimated that some villages will reach food self-sufficiency within three to four months, others in up to six months, depending on the severity of the drought, its duration, the sweet-potato cycle and soil quality.

For the past three weeks ICRC/PMI teams have been working in the southern part of the Baliem Valley, to the south of Wamena. As there are no clashes between the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM - Free Papua Movement) and the Indonesian security forces in this region, the ICRC/PMI team's involvement is slightly different to that in the Mimika regency. World Vision Indonesia and the Netherlands Reformed Church provide food (rice, beans, oil and salt) whilst the logistics for macro distribution (from the Wamena warehouse to villages with an airstrip) are taken care of by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship. The ICRC/PMI team focuses on assessing needs, fine-tuning assistance and carrying out micro distribution (from the places where the food is pre-positioned to the various villages which are too far away and which have no means of picking up the assistance).

 Third area to be reached within coming weeks  

Once the ICRC has received authorization, the delegation plans to send a third team to the Merauke region, which borders Papua New Guinea and harbours OPM members. Assessments of the nutritional and medical situation will be made by the ICRC/PMI staff before the appropriate assistance is given.

 Personnel  

The ICRC currently has four expatriates based in Irian Jaya, two of whom were seconded by the National Societies of Australia and the United Kingdom.

The PMI employs a doctor, nurse, agronomist, administrator, nutritionist and field officer.