Indonesia on a mission to stave off drought, food crisis

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo pledged on Saturday to complete the Raknamo reservoir project in Kupang regency, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), in three years, instead of the previously planned five.

The speeding-up of the project is part of the government's efforts to help the country's drought-prone regions improve their agriculture sector and avoid a food crisis.

In a visit to the dam project site in Raknamo sub-district, Amabi Oefeto district, President Jokowi said he was keen to see the dam completed by the end of 2017.

"I came back to see the progress of the dam development, seven months after I opened the project. I have been promised that [the dam] will be completed within three years instead of the planned five years. By the end of 2017, it will be completed and in operation," he said.

Once completed, the Raknamo dam, with construction costs of Rp 760 billion (S$77 million), is expected to provide irrigation for at least 1,250 hectares of farmland in Kupang regency and the neighbouring Kupang municipality, the province's capital.

The dam, which will have a capacity of 14.09 million cubic meters, will also serve as a major source of clean water for local residents. It has also been designed for use as a mini hydropower plant.

During Saturday's visit, Jokowi, who was accompanied by several ministers, including State-Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno, Agrarian and Spatial Planning Minister Ferry Mursyidan Baldan, and Agriculture Minister Amran Sulaiman, did not give lengthy speeches, and instead spent most of his one-hour visit inspecting the progress of the dam's construction.

"I will monitor [the project] and return [here] again so that the dam can be completed as soon as possible," he said.

Jokowi, who was inaugurated as the country's seventh president in October last year, has pledged to lead the country to become self-sufficient in rice production within three years.

However, many regions in the country have reported that large amounts of farmland are on the verge of harvest failure as a result of this year's prolonged dry season, which has been triggered by the weather phenomenon known as El Niño.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) predicts that the El Niño effect will extend Indonesia's dry season, which normally takes place between April and September, until November and affect 18 provinces, including North Sumatra, West Java, Central Java, East Java and NTT.

Thousands of residents of NTT's South Timor Tengah regency, for example, have reportedly been suffering from a food crisis since earlier this year following poor harvests. Some of the residents have even been forced to consume putak, a Palmyra palm tree-based dish, to survive.

Earlier this week, Minister Amran said the government had been anticipating the irregular weather patterns since early this year by building irrigation channels that spanned over 1 million ha. He also said that the government was planning to reduce areas affected by crop failure to 10,000 ha this year from the 25,000 ha seen in previous years.

Speaking to The Jakarta Post on the sideline of President Jokowi's visit on Saturday, Public Works and Public Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono, said the government was planning to build seven new dams in NTT within the next five years to help provide sufficient irrigation for the province's farmland.

Apart from the Tilong dam, currently the only reservoir in the province, NTT has 500 retention basins. However, they are not enough to provide irrigation for all farmland in the province over a whole year, according to Basuki.

"West Nusa Tenggara province, for example, has a more advanced agriculture sector than NTT as it now has 10 reservoirs," he said, adding that the government had allocated Rp 5.6 trillion from the state budget for the establishment of the seven new dams in NTT.

To speed up the completion of the Raknamo dam, Basuki said the development project was being worked on 24 hours a day, with workers split into day and night shifts.

Local community leader Anselmus Djogo said he applauded the government's efforts to help NTT end its long-standing water crisis.

"Drought in NTT is an annual routine. The new dam will become an oasis in the middle of a desert," he said.