Saturday, September 22, 2012

Little Consolation for Central Java's Rain-Starved Farmers

A villager traversing a dry dam that came about as a result of a long drought period in the Bojonegoro district of Indonesia's East Java province earlier this month. Asia's channelling of 82 percent of its water for food production is not the only startling statistic. Consider another astonishing figure: almost 74 percent of the total global fresh water used for agriculture is in Asia alone.

The rain hasn’t fallen here in three months,” says Sofyan Ansori, sweeping his arm over a vast expanse of dried-out rice fields. 

“The irrigation canals have been dry for almost as long, and the rice crops aren’t getting enough water. Even the rivers have gone dry.” 

Sofyan, the head of Tabah Terunjam village in Central Bengkulu district, says the crop is already two months old and just a few weeks away from harvest. 

But that won’t happen this year. 

“The drought has killed nearly the entire crop, so most of the farmers have just abandoned their fields,” he says. 

Forty-five hectares of rice paddies across the village have been destroyed by the long dry season. A few patches continue to grow, but will yield a negligible amount of the grain — assuming the rains begin sometime in the next few days, Sofyan points out. 

Nasron, a farmer, has already begun clearing the dead rice stalks from his fields in preparation for sowing a new crop with the advent of the rainy season. 

“There would be no point in planting anything now because there’s still no water in the irrigation canal,” he says. 

The district agriculture office has promised to give the farmers free seed crop to plant once the rains begin, and is currently gauging their losses to determine how much to distribute to each farmer. 

The offer is small consolation for the farmers in Tabah Terunjam, whose livelihoods depend on a successful harvest. 

But they are not the only ones affected by the unusually intense dry season this year. Farmers all over the country have seen their crops die before they can be harvested, as the aquifers and rivers feeding the irrigation canals run dry amid the lack of rain. 

In Sragen, Central Java, officials are calling on the central government to seed rain clouds to prevent the failure of at least 405 hectares of rice paddies. 

“We hope that the plan to induce artificial rain to fill up the empty reservoirs will be done soon because this is currently a crucial stage for the rice, which is 70 to 80 days old,” says Budiharjo, the head of the district agriculture office. 

“At this stage the crops need a lot of water, but there’s virtually no supply.” 

He warns that without any rains in the next two weeks, the amount of failed farmland in the area will expand rapidly. 

In neighboring Sukoharjo district, farmers are urging the company managing water supplies from the Bengawan Solo River not to cut off supplies for their irrigation network. 

Subari, one of the farmers calling on the district legislature to support their cause, says the water company is planning to shut down the water supply next month because of the dwindling water level in the river. 

He says that in Sukoharjo’s Weru subdistrict alone, 907 hectares of rice crop are dependent on the irrigation network. Some fields have already failed because of the decreasing amount of water. 

“Sixty hectares of rice paddies there have failed,” Subari says. 

The situation has become so dire that some farmers have taken extreme measures to highlight their plight. On Tuesday, farmers in Weru held three river water management officials hostage for two hours to demand answers on why their area was not getting any water. 

“We just want clarity on the issue,” said Sugeng Darmawan, the head of the local farmers’ association. 

“Will Weru get any water, yes or no? The farmers are really worked up about this because they stand to lose their crops if there’s still no water.” 

The standoff was resolved after district legislators got the water company to promise to increase their supply to the farmers from the Colo Barat Dam. 

However, the solution may be too little, too late. The company said it could only provide water at a rate of 5 cubic meters per second, less than the 7 cubic meters per second that the farmers wanted. 

In addition, the supply will only be available until the end of the month, after which it will be throttled down again.

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