Hunger on our doorstep

23 December 2011

Report by David Henry:

MAF is working hard with partner agencies to address severe malnutrition levels among children in East Timor

Liliana, or 'Lily' as she is better known, is seven years old. She lives on the side of a mountain in East Timor with her grandmother. Her only toy is a water bottle that she uses to water the vegetables in the garden.

The vegetables are important. When they don’t grow, she and her grandmother have almost nothing to eat, just some cassava. Lily’s grandma measures out a small amount of cassava each day to make sure there is enough to last. Lily gets sick a lot because she is malnourished.

Right now East Timor is in the early stages of what locals refer to as the ‘hunger season’ from November to February when rains invariably fail and crops wilt in the fields.

Chronic malnutrition exacerbated by the hunger season puts East Timor at seventh spot on the 2011 Global Hunger Index by Severity survey of 81 developing countries carried out by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Malnutrition among children in East Timor is categorised by IFPRI as ‘alarming’.

Lily with her grandmother

According to UNICEF’s 2011 State of the World's Children Report, 49 per cent of children aged under five in East Timor are underweight and 54 per cent suffer from stunted growth, the indicator of chronic malnutrition.

MAF is working with partner agencies like World Vision to address malnutrition in East Timor, especially among children. To reach the World Vision Timor Leste (WVTL) Bobonaro Area Program would normally take about five hours from Dili by car on a windy, pot-holed road. A MAF flight gets the WVTL staff there in just 20 minutes, saving time and money.

WVTL staff member measures upper arm circumference on a child.

In many cases MAF has shown flexibility by flying on the weekend or changing routes to meet WVTL's needs.

"Without MAF, we would have been in trouble many times," declares WVTL General Services Manager, Antonio Goncalves.

Why are kids in East Timor going hungry?

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Most East Timorese live in rural areas, farming small plots of land that do not produce enough food to feed a family. And the food they do have does not provide adequate nutrition for a balanced diet.

Rocky soil and low rainfall make farming difficult. In between harvests, food stocks run low and families eat less – often not even two meals a day.

Poorly nourished children suffer from wasting and stunted growth which can permanently harm brain development and the ability to learn.

“In East Timor, kids are going to bed hungry every night  and that saddens me,” said MAF Australia Chief Executive Rob Owen.

 “But I am encouraged to know that we are playing a vital part in ensuring that crop yields are improved, nutrition levels of children under five are boosted and mothers are being trained in areas such as infant feeding and malaria prevention.

“We are also directly involved in saving lives through emergency medical evacuation (medivac) flights. In 2010, MAF carried out 139 medivacs in East Timor and a total of 441 flights.

“We have been called to serve in East Timor, a small, fledgling nation just off our northwest coast. They have had it tough since independence 12 years ago. But our presence there since 2007 has made a significant difference.”


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