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East Timor Facing Food Crisis

The World Food Program and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report East Timor is on the brink of a major food crisis. They say urgent action must be taken to avert a potentially disastrous situation. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The U.N. agencies say persistent drought and plagues of locusts have ravaged this year's harvest. They say one-fifth of East Timor's population or up to 220,000 people is facing severe food shortages.

World Food Program Spokesman, Simon Pluess, says these people will require more than 15,000 tons of emergency food assistance to avert a major food crisis.

"Apart from the 15,000 tons of humanitarian aid, the country will have to import some 70,000 tons commercially and some 16,000 tons will have to be taken from strategic food reserves," Pluess said. "What we also have to know is that the poorest people, they live mostly in rural and more remote districts. They are the ones that are hardest hit and many of them, they fled the conflict last year and they still cannot produce enough food domestically to…compensate for their own requirements."

Last year, East Timor faced a political crisis when rival security forces fought each other. This set up a spree of looting and arson attacks. Thirty seven people were killed. Thousands were forced to flee their homes.

Nearly 100,000 displaced people are living in the capital Dili in cramped tent camps or with relatives in the districts as a result of the turmoil that began in 2006. They have been receiving food aid since then.

This bleak report of East Timor's food crisis is based on a joint assessment carried out by the World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization in March and April.

The report says Timorese people will face a particularly hard time during the six months of, what it calls, the lean season. This is the period between October and March 2008, just before the next harvest.

The U.N. agencies say they will be seeking funds from international donors for critical agricultural needs and food assistance. In the meantime, they say they will continue to closely monitor the drought situation and watch for locust infestations, which would further deplete crop yields. This they say will help provide Timorese farmers with the best information and help they can get.