Chaudhry seeks relief for victims of drought

  • 16th October 2003
  • 2003
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Labour Leader Mahendra Chaudhry has called on government to provide food rations, cash grant and crop rehabilitation measures to assist victims of the crippling drought.

The relief was sought through an urgent motion moved in parliament last Thursday but was rejected by an insensitive government that argued that Fiji had been hit by a long dry spell, but not a drought.

Mr. Chaudhry’s motion was prompted by the suffering of people in rural areas and in the outer islands most of whom had lost their root crops and vegetables to the drought that began with well below average rains since November last year. 

Cane farmers in the most severely affected regions are reported to have suffered crop damage ranging from 30-60%. Worse still, next year’s crop is also in doubt because of damage to ratoon and to the cane crop. Even if the rains were to come now, it’s too late to save next season’s crop, he argued.

Apart from the devastation to crop, the drought has caused a serious national power crisis with the Monasavu dam reaching critically low levels and regular disruptions to water supply throughout the country.

The full text of Mr. Chaudhry’s address is provided below:

“…we are all aware that a large part of the country is in the grips of a crippling drought. Areas most affected are Vanua Levu and Taveuni, western Viti Levu and the outlying islands of Lau and the Lomaiviti Groups. The chain of islands in the Yasawa Group is perhaps the most severely affected of the lot.

Regrettably, there are no official statistics available as yet on the effect the drought is having on our people presumably because the officialdom is yet to wake up to the fact that Fiji is in the grips of a devastating drought!

Only yesterday, upon inquiry, officials of the Ministry of Agriculture told me that they have not received any instructions to start surveying the affected areas. Likewise, my inquiries with the Commissioner Western’s office revealed that no instructions have been received from the Ministry of Regional Development to begin activating DISMAC in order to assess the situation. This, of course is indicative of the sheer insensitivity of this government towards the plight and suffering of the ordinary people.

I say this, Mr. Speaker, because the government cannot really be oblivious to what is happening in the country. The reality of the crisis is brought home to us everyday with screaming media headlines about a power crisis caused by the critically low level of the Monasavu dam and disruptions to water supplies caused by low water levels in reservoirs.

Mr. Speaker, in terms of the electricity crisis, I have been concerned to hear the FEA warn that it may have to raise tariff to meet the added cost of having to resort to diesel generation to meet the power demand. I would advice government to do everything within its means to prevent an increase in electricity rates because a hike will merely increase the hardship for the vast majority of our people. Government and FEA must absorb any cost increase. A hike in electricity tariff will be also be counter productive to economic recovery, adding to the already high cost of doing business in Fiji.

Mr. Speaker, the FEA must realise that the drought is only a temporary phenomenon. When the rains come, dam levels will rise again to acceptable levels bringing diesel generation down to a minimum. Governmentmust not let FEA use the drought as an excuse to push up rates.

Indeed, Mr. Speaker it is time FEA redeemed its promise to the people of Fiji that electricity rates will be reduced gradually. The People’s Coalition Government had begun the process by reducing rates 16% in 1999 with the promise of a further 16% cut in August 2000. Unfortunately, we were not given the chance to do this. I must also remind government of its SDL manifesto promise not to increase electricity charges. It must keep this promise.

Having said that, I return to my main concern in this motion today which is the direct impact of the drought on the ordinary people – families in the rural areas and the outer islands who have been hit hard by the drought.

I am referring, Sir, to farmers and those dependent on subsistence economy for their livelihood. Many of them are in desperate need of relief assistance from the State to continue to survive.

Government should know from experience, for instance, that the outer islands because of their atoll environment are extremely vulnerable to drought conditions.

Yet we have not heard of any initiative taken by the State to date to provide special assistance to these people who are utterly reliant on rain water for their drinking and cooking needs and for the sustenance of crops.

I acknowledge Mr Speaker, that the impact of the drought differs from region to region. In some areas the impact is devastating. In others, it is not as bad. But we must keep in mind, Sir, that the farmers and the rural community are already among the most deprived of our society and even a slight hiccup in their income levels will cause real hardship to them.

I intend now, Sir, to look at each affected group separately. Allow me to begin with the impact on the sugar industry, the survival of which is already under threat from other factors.

The crisis in the sugar industry alone should be cause for serious alarm. Cane production has dropped to a level that is not economically viable for the Fiji Sugar Corporation to keep all its four mills running. The crop is down 700,000 tonnes from last season’s crush of 3.4 million tonnes.

Latest estimates are that the prolonged drought has reduced the crop by 500,000 tonnes – from a pre-season forecast of 3.2 million tonnes for 2003, it is now revised down to 2.7 million tonnes. This figure is falling by the week as the drought continues to take its toll.

FSC needs a minimum national crop size of at least 3 million tonnes, to operate its mills viably. Anything below this means the four mills will be running at a loss.

Sir, the outlook for next year’s crop is even more alarming. In many of the affected areas the ratoon has withered in the parched conditions that have been prevalent since November last year.

This means that next year’s crop will be drastically reduced if a crop rehabilitation programme is not put in place soon to rescue the situation when the rains come.

An indication of the seriousness of the situation can be gleaned from the reduced sales of the South Pacific Fertiliser Company. The company’s sales are down 35% …so far it has only sold 13,000 tonnes of fertiliser compared to 20,000 tonnes it normally sells by this time of the year.

This is ample warning of the disaster awaiting nest season’s crop unless remedial action is taken now.

As I have pointed out, it is not commercially viable for FSC to operate if it does not get a minimum of 3 million tonnes to crush. I must impress on the government the fact that even if the rains come now, it is too late to make any difference to the crop, ratoon and plant cane which have already been destroyed by the drought.

This makes a crop rehabilitation programme or CRP absolutely imperative if we are to restore the crop size to viable levels which I would put at no less than 3.5 million tonnes. Neither the farmers, nor the industry, Sir, has the financial resources to implement this. As it is, many of them are facing heavy financial losses from damage to their crop from the drought and, in Vanua Levu from the cyclone early this year.

Farms on hilly areas are worst affected with losses ranging from 40-80%. In other badly affected areas, damage to crop ranges from 20-30% .

In the Tavua/Rakiraki district, for instance, farmers on hilly and drought prone areas such as Nanuku, Rabulu and Balata have suffered crop losses of about 60%. The situation is so grim that some 10% of farmers have lost their entire crop.

The situation along parts of Ba and Lautoka is just as bad: Bilolo, Nadari, Waibuka, Vatiaka, Veisaru, Namoli and then moving along the Ba-Lautoka corridor, you have Karavi, Sarava, Tuvu, Teidamu, Raviravi .

The list goes on: in Lautoka you have Saru, Vaivai, Wairebatia, Saweni. Move on past Nadi and one finds Lomawai, Savusavu and Uciwai pretty badly affected.

The North (Vanua Levu) already pounded by Cyclone Ami in January, is now facing further devastation from the drought. The Labasa Mill normally crushes more than a million tonnes of cane. Its crop size after the cyclone was reduced to 896,000 for the 2003 season. It is now down a further 15% to 700,000 tonnes as a result of the drought.

The North is already an economically depressed region. Non-renewal of hundreds of native leases in the past few years coupled with the downward spiral in the timber industry has severely undermined the economy of this region. Then Cyclone Ami at the start of the year left a swathe of devastation and suffering that further aggravated the plight of the people here. Now they are facing another calamity in the way of the drought.

How much battering can one expect a people to take? The North is in need of special relief assistance which entails a comprehensive rehabilitation package that will revive agricultural activity here and put a new lease of life into its depressed economy. The area has great potential but it needs State assistance to realise this.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, I have thus far talked in terms of figures and areas to try and highlight the extent and intensity of the crippling effects of the drought. But behind this tragedy are human lives, entire families whose meagre incomes have been further reduced by crop losses they can ill afford.

Let me bring home the suffering of these people with a few examples.

Let’s take the case of a cane farmer who grows 150 tonnes on hilly land. He is likely to lose 60% of his crop leaving him with about 60 tonnes of cane. Calculated on a price of $55 a tonne, he will only receive a gross income of $3300 which after production costs are met will leave him with a meagre sum of about $1500 or $125 per month or $29 per week to feed and clothe his family and meet their other basic needs.

How can he and his family survive on a miserable $29 a week, an income that is way below the poverty line even for rural areas particularly when it must be remembered that the family has even lost the few vegetables and root crops it used to grow at the subsistence level to supplement its meagre income.

Even worse than the plight of the cane farmer is the hardship faced by the farm labourer and the cane cutter as a result of the drought and the reduced size of the cane crop.

Mr. Speaker these are admittedly the most marginalised people in our society. They are seasonal workers, poorly paid and largely landless. According to official statistics, there are 17,000 cane cutters and if we take farm hands, we are possibly looking at some 20,000 or so families or, close to 100,000 people whose suffering is going to be intensified as a result of the loss of income caused by the drought.

It stands to reason that if the cane crop is reduced by 40% or even 30%, the income of these workers, on an average, will be similarly affected. In reality, a large number of them will find themselves with no jobs and therefore no income because their seasonal employment will have to come to an end on account of the drought.

It must be remembered that most of the cane cutters are, as I mentioned, seasonal workers who move to cane farms from as far away as Tailevu, Naitasiri, Serua, Namosi and the outlying islands , and in the North from Taveuni, Savusavu, Rabi and so on to work as cane cutters.

They come from depressed areas where there are none or limited job opportunities. What would happen to their families? How are they expected to survive the crisis?

What about farmers, largely subsistence, who bring their produce from villages in the interior to sell in urban markets so that they can buy a few necessities of life? Their root crops and vegetables have been badly affected by the prolonged drought.

According to unofficial estimates from agricultural officials, we are looking at an overall crop loss ranging between 30% -50% in the affected areas. And I am now referring to root crops, vegetables, market produce that have withered in the parched conditions caused by the drought.

Again the loss varies from area to area. In the worst hit areas of western Viti Levu, Taveuni, the Yasawas and the Lau Group crop damage is estimated as high as 80% or total in some cases.

Copra, Mr Speaker, is the major source of income for people in the outlying islands. Yet copra production has declined significantly this year as a result of Cyclone Ami and the drought. In Taveuni which faced the major brunt of Ami’s fury, copra production has more than halved.

  •  Pro-rated figures to August this year, show a decline of 56%
  • as against seasonally adjusted production figures for the past three years. For Rabi, the decline is 39% and for the Lau group 29%.

That is how bad the situation is. Copra, as I have mentioned, remains the major source of income for these people …a decline in production means a corresponding decline in income. Now they are hit by a drought which is destroying their food crops. How are these people expected to cope?

They need government relief assistance to see them through for the next few months until they can stand on their own feet again, that is if the rains come soon. Fortunately, we are now into the rainy season and hopefully the rains will come soon.

I strongly recommend, Sir, that these people in the outer islands be given food rations to tide them over for the time being.

Mr. Speaker, the need for urgent government assistance for victims of the drought is underscored by the fact that workers in Fiji and the ordinary people do not enjoy any kind of social safety net. There is no unemployment benefit. There is no national health scheme. There is no crop insurance scheme. So to whom or where do these hapless people turn for relief and assistance at times of national disaster, if not to the State?

The State has a social and moral obligation to provide for its people at a time of natural disaster and this is what my appeal is aimed at the social conscience of any caring government!

Mr. Speaker, the people on whose behalf I am appealing to government are the most marginalised in our society. As I have said they have no social safety nets, they have no savings to fall back on at times of crisis. They are the responsibility of the State.

Already civil society organisations are beginning to warn of the enormous social dislocation that will come in the wake of the drought. Just this week, the Fiji Teachers Union made a statement that appeared in the Fiji Times on 13 October, warning of the likelihood of a large number of children from drought stricken families dropping out of schools next year of children because of the financial inability of their parents or guardians.

FTU President Balram, who is based in Tavua, warned that cane production could drop by as much as 60% in his area which would inflict untold suffering on the farming community. His plea for government assistance for these needy children was supported by charitable organisations some of whom have suggested that government consider scrapping fees next year for students from drought hit families.

A statement from the Save the Children Fund in today’s Fiji Times, has called on the government to start taking a more realistic look at the welfare of rural students and not try to suppress facts about the drought. It calls on government to conduct surveys and collect data to get an accurate picture of the effect the drought will have on rural students next year.

My fear, Sir, is that we already have an explosive poverty problem in the country. Just the other day a report from the Ministry of Social Welfare showed that the Ministry was providing destitute allowance to 100,000 people (20,000 families) and another 20,000 were on the waiting list. How can we as leaders of the nation condone such a situation?

I have said before Mr. Speaker that poverty in Fiji is a post-coup phenomenon ushered by the hardship inflicted on our people in the aftermath of our three coups and the depressed economic situation they are responsible for.

Natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and droughts send more of our unfortunate people to the demeaning ranks of poverty and social degredation.

Sir, we are the voice of these people. It is our responsibility to speak out about their plight and to assist them.

Just because we in this House are living comfortable lives with our regular salaries, does not give us the right to ignore the suffering of our people in time of need.

My motion seeks relief from government for these suffering families at two levels:

first, a cash grant to provide immediate relief for rural families affected by the drought so that they can meet their basic living requirements and essentials of life

A crop rehabilitation programme for all farmers, and in the case of cane farmers to restore next year’s crop so that the industry can remain viable.

We have a precedence in this from the 1997/98 drought. The crop rehabilitation scheme initiated then for the cane sector resulted in a bumper crop in 1999 and the highest sugar income on record.

And if I remember correctly some rehabilitation relief was also provided to other agricultural sectors.

I cannot impress too strongly on the government the dire consequences to the already struggling sugar industry should a rehabilitation programme not be initiated. My anxiety regarding the plight of the sugar industry is shared by industry executives who have undertaken a survey of drought stricken areas.

I wrote last month to Sugar Industry chairman, Mr. Gerald Barrack and to the Minister for Agriculture trying to impress on them the need for relief assistance to be granted to farmers and the initiation of a CRP. I called for an urgent meeting of the Sugar Select Committee to discuss the crisis and to agree on a CRP.

The Minister assured me just yesterday that he will convene a meeting of the Sugar Select Committee in the first week of November after a report on the effects of the drought has been compiled.

Mr. Speaker I look forward to this commitment. For the cash grant and crop rehabilitation programme in the sugar sector, I would suggest that government uses revenue received from the sugar export tax which it raised to 10% this year.

Our records show that to October this year, government will have collected a little over $16.5 million from sugar and molasses exports for 2003.

I must emphasise that the assistance package should be given as a grant and not a loan since disaster management and relief are government obligations.

For the non-sugar sector, funds should be provided from the 2003 Budget where possible or additional provisions sought as necessary.

Mr. Speaker, I would strongly recommend that DISMAC be activated immediately to deal with the crisis confronting the rural community. There needs to be a proper assessment made of the true extent and nature of the problem for each affected area and the necessary relief provided.

I am in fact surprised that DISMAC has not already swung into action in view of the seriousness of the drought. There appears to be some reluctance to recognise that a drought is also a natural disaster and victims of the drought need State assistance.

Mr. Speaker, I must take this opportunity to register my extreme disappointment that government grants promised to rebuild schools and houses damaged in Vanua Levu by Cyclone Ami have still not materialised.

We have widely toured devastated areas and are concerned to find that people in villages and settlements are still living in tents or tarpaulins provided at the time of the cyclone. Damage to school buildings have still not been fully restored.

If I remember correctly, government had promised $5000 grant to people whose homes had been fully destroyed and $2500 for homes partially damaged.

According to government’s own report, a total of 5985 homes were partially damaged by the cyclone and 2622 homes completely destroyed .

A breakdown shows Macuata with 3000 homes partially damaged and 1000 completely destroyed. In Cakaudrove 2200 were partially damaged and 1257 fully destroyed; in Lau 593 suffered partial destruction and 375 fully destroyed.

It is a bit disconcerting to realise that most of these people are still homeless or living in tents or under tarpaulins. We have another cyclone season almost upon us. Yet government has still not done anything to assist those who suffered 10 months ago.

The Island of Qamea took the brunt of the cyclone and suffered extensive devastation. Residents are still living in tents we were told by a couple who came to the FLP office this week. They came to Suva to access money from their FNPF to rebuild their home because no assistance was forthcoming from government.

This is an appalling state of affairs. Government had diverted funds from various activities after the cyclone to provide relief assistance to victims of the cyclone. One wonders what has happened to these funds if victims are still waiting for assistance.

The SDL Government, Sir, needs to become more attuned and sensitive to the needs and suffering of our people. A lot of government’s time and money are being expended on trips, merrymaking and mismanagement while the needs of the poor and the needy are not being met.

My motion has to be seen in this light.

I feel it is now necessary to initiate steps at the parliamentary level to create a bipartisan committee to deal with natural disasters and to monitor the distribution of relief assistance.

I strongly recommend that a parliamentary standing committee be set up to deal with natural disasters. If government is not going to show a social conscience when it comes to assisting those affected by natural disaster then this responsibility will have to be vested in Parliament, I am afraid.

Sir, I thank you for allowing me time to present this urgent motion and I also thank Honourable members for their attention.

I commend the motion to the House.