Oei Eng Goan
This year’s prolonged dry season has not only affected villagers who rely on crops and well-stocked fish ponds, but also townspeople who are forced to go about their daily activities in the searing heat that has been caused by bush or forest fires throughout the country.
The drought has reduced the volume of water in rivers, lakes, wells and reservoirs. The water shortages have, through August, dried irrigation channels that are used to hydrate more than 127,000 hectares of paddy fields, turning the farmland into parched tracts and causing thousands of farmers to suffer financial losses.
Although the failed harvest in those paddy fields, which constitute 1.6 percent of the nation’s total paddies, will not affect the country’s overall rice production, it has deprived tens of thousands of rural residents with one basic need: drinking water.
To get two buckets of clean water from wells that are running dry, villagers have to walk two to five kilometers because they are too poor to buy bottled drinking water, while the poorest of them resort to drinking cloudy water that is unfit for human consumption.
“Clean water distribution in the country is not fair,” former Vice President Jusuf Kalla said on a television talk show last week, citing that middle-income people in big cities pay Rp 6,000 per cubic meter of clean running water, while low-income villagers pay Rp 40,000.
He said that although drought is a natural phenomenon, the government should have anticipated the problem and taken steps to minimize its impact.
Other consequences from the drought are the hundreds of bush and forest fires that have happened in the last several weeks, causing health hazards in parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan. The haze from the smoke also disrupted a number of flights in West Kalimantan.
Experts agree that, to some extent, the economic damage caused by the drought could have been contained with better planning, or the building of more artificial lakes, water containment areas and dams. Solutions like those could have been used to channel a constant supply of water to farms as well as generate electric power.
In a quick solution to the forest fire problem, the government used cloud seeding technology — producing rain by scattering silver iodide among clouds from aircraft — and succeeded in extinguishing the fires in the Jambi forests.
This technology does not work well in areas where clouds don’t easily form.
Still, the application of this technology, which costs relatively little when compared to the billion-dollar useless sports center project in Hambalang, West Java, or the purchase of a $38 million presidential plane. If the government is truly committed to alleviating poor people’s suffering, it should draw up a realistic blueprint for containing all problems, given that droughts and floods are perennial tragedies that befall tens of thousands of farmers whose livelihood depends solely on their crop yields.
Meanwhile, the Forestry Ministry should do better in protecting the nation’s treasured forests, which were exploited during the New Order regime by illegal loggers. The forestry police could also stand to see some improvement.
The ministry should not hesitate to bring the culprits, including rogue businesspeople who intentionally set fires to the forests and convert the remaining plots into plantations, to justice.
Without such measures in place, we will continue to suffer water shortages during droughts, and floods during the rainy season.
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecturer at National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.