Yudhoyono vows to help volcano victims

Yudhoyono vows to help volcano victims

Villagers living within a 3km radius of the volcano Mount Sinabung and whose farms have been destroyed by the impact of its recent eruptions will be relocated to nearby districts and provinces, said President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Speaking at the end of his visit to Karo's evacuee camps housing displaced residents, he also asked banks to cancel any interest on loans taken by farmers before the eruptions. It is part of a series of measures to help those affected get back on their feet.

Dr Yudhoyono, however, stopped short of declaring the ongoing eruption of the volcano a national disaster.

But he pledged government resources to make sure affected residents stay employed, as part of an attempt to help mitigate a growing crisis that may drag on for several months yet, as the volcano shows no sign of ceasing its eruptions.

''Those remaining in shelters will also get good treatment, including health care and education,'' the President added.

More than 28,000 people have fled their homes since the volcano began spewing ash and lava last September, with the numbers having risen in recent weeks.

About 85 per cent of residents in Karo regency are farmers, according to Mr Syarifuddin, a senior official with the local department of agriculture.

His department estimated agriculture losses at 10,480ha of farmland and 20ha of fisheries area worth nearly one trillion rupiah (S$110 million).

Mount Sinabung's fertile slopes have seen farmers tending to cabbage, coffee beans, tomatoes, chilli, sweet potatoes and carrots, among others.

About 20 per cent of these are exported to Malaysia and Singapore.

About 20 water pumps, each capable of supplying water to an entire village from rivers and streams, and 60 two-wheel tractors have been brought in as part of the President's visit, said Mr Syarifuddin. These powerful tractors can dig into the ash-covered ground to bring up the soil.

''Karo cannot handle the crisis alone; we desperately need assistance from the central government,'' he told The Straits Times.

The difference between the latest eruptions and those of 2010 is that the previous ones were shorter and their effects limited.

''In 2010, people could recoup what they lost within two years, but this time, the prolonged eruptions have seen massive contamination to the land mainly from the thick ash. Full recovery could take as long as five years,'' he added.

Up to 30 per cent of the farmers have had their farms wiped out since the eruptions began.

Volcanologists say they cannot predict when the volcano, which was dormant for 400 years until 2010, will quieten down again.

But Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, said the government made plans on the assumption the disaster will go on for at least another two months.

Dr Yudhoyono's visit came as Jakarta was criticised for being slow to react to the crisis.

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