FLORES, Indonesia (Asia Water Wire) - The word 'melody' has taken on a whole new meaning for the people of Manggarai regency in the western end of Flores, East Nusa Tenggara province.
While most people would immediately imagine sweet music when they hear the word 'melody', Manggarai residents would think of the skin diseases they are suffering due to lack of access to clean water.
The situation is such that old folk in Manggarai have coined the term 'melody sickness' to describe the never-ending scratching most villagers in the regency end up doing due to their skin diseases. The villagers liken the scratching motion as akin to playing the guitar, ergo the 'melody' produced.
"All Manggarai residents, young and adult, are afflicted with skin diseases," said Anselmus Embo, a health officer in Denge, Satar Lenda subdistrict, Manggarai regency. The most common skin diseases are ringworm, psoriasis, rashes, leprosy and athlete's foot.
Manggarai covers an area of 4,189 square kilometres and is divided into 12 districts and 227 subdistricts. However, it has only three hospitals, including two private hospitals, 22 public health centres, locally known as 'puskesmas', 12 mobile 'puskesmas' and four polyclinics and is served by 19 doctors, 319 nurses and 205 midwives.
Manggarai regent Christian Rotok said there were 211,718 cases of health problems throughout Manggarai in 2004, of which 23 percent were caused by lack of access to clean water and 20 percent by lack of access to health services.
Flores island is generally known as a dry land, but the supply of water in Manggarai is exacerbated by the fact that around 71 percent of its territory has inclines of more than 40 degrees. This makes any investment, including clean water supply and road construction, highly expensive. Only 36 percent of Manggarai's population of more than 500,000 have access to clean water.
"Our schoolchildren are in a terrible condition because most of them have skin diseases and the diseases are contagious," said Stanislaus Jodhi, principal of Denge Catholic Elementary School.
Jodhi pointed out that some Manggarai students, even teachers, go to school without taking a bath or washing their faces as they do not have access to clean water.
"Even if we take a bath three times a day, we are still dirty," Jodhi said, adding that people feel itchy after taking a bath ."We are really in a desperate situation. Just imagine, we are in a village surrounded by water buffaloes and pigs, but with no water," said the father of four.
Blasius Monta, a teacher at Denge Catholic Elementary School, pointed out that students are always reminded to take a bath, but "our instructions are pointless."
"It's difficult for our students to understand the importance of being clean when we don't have clean water," Monta said.
To take a bath, schoolchildren have to rush to the rivers early in the morning. Most Manggarai residents draw water for their daily consumption from filthy rivers several kilometres away. During the dry season, the water volumes of the rivers shrink. In local Manggarai culture, women and young girls are the principal water drawers and carriers and have to wake up early in the morning to fetch water from the rivers. Most of the time, they fill up dirty jerry cans with water for their everyday use.
In Paka and Nikeng villages in Satar Lenda subdistrict, residents get water from a creek built in the 1960s by farmers to irrigate nearby rice fields. Water from the creek comes from Wae Ntijo River, one of the two rivers that flow through Satar Lenda.
From dawn to dusk, residents line up at the creek to fetch water for drinking, cooking and washing dishes. They also do the laundry and take a bath in the creek. As many people suffering from skin diseases use the creek for bathing, they transfer germs to the water. Sometimes, residents would also bathe their water buffaloes or dump their garbage into the creek. The situation is found in other villages across the regency.
"Manggarai people just ignore the skin diseases," Embo said, adding that Manggarai villagers also don't have the money to consult a doctor or a local health officer. Each patient has to pay 15,000 rupiah (1.64 dollars) for every visit to a local health centre.
Adults with skin diseases often are too ashamed to consult medical doctors or local health officers and would rather stay home.
"When I first had this skin disease, I consulted a medical doctor, but now I don't feel comfortable to tell health officers about my disease," said 57-year-old businessman Daniel Sarung.
Sarung, who owns two rice mills and one truck and stays in a permanent house located in the middle of expansive rice fields, blames his predicament and that of his family members on the irrigation water they use for drinking, taking a bath, cooking and doing the laundry.
"Our water is heavily contaminated with fertiliser and pesticides, but we have no choice. We drink, take a bath, cook, wash the dishes and do the laundry with dirty water. We cannot really escape," said Sarung, adding that his wife and two sons also have similar diseases.
"Many Manggarai villagers are also suffering from dandruff," said Maria Kristianti Madriani, a health worker in Manggarai, adding "it is common to find lice in the hair of Manggarai children."
Madriani said that Manggarai people could not afford to buy a bottle of shampoo due to their low purchasing power. At least 67 percent of over 100,000 families in Manggarai are considered poor and are on the list of the central government's direct cash assistance programme.
"Instead of using shampoo, Manggarai residents apply coconut oil, which is much cheaper," she said. One sachet of shampoo costs 1,000 rupiah (11 U.S. cents).
Aside from skin diseases, diarrhoea, dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever are prevalent in Manggarai especially during the rainy season from November to March.
The severe lack of health officers has paved the way for more untrained midwives or 'dukun', whose now number 3,792. This contributes to the high maternal mortality rate in the regency of 554 for every 100,000 Manggarai women.
To solve the water supply and sanitation problems in Manggarai, the regency is seeking more than 30 billion rupiah (3.27 million dollars) from the central government, according to Frans Salesman, head of Manggarai development planning agency.
Salesman presented the funding proposal to the Ministry for the Development of Backward Areas in June. If approved, each of 151 villages in Manggarai, one of the poorest regencies in Indonesia, will receive 200 million rupiah (21,813 dollars) for water projects.
"Water has been a lifetime problem in Manggarai," Salesman said, adding that many people in Manggarai have not seen clean water since their birth.
"We hope to provide clean water supply to majority of Manggarai residents by 2010," Salesman said. "Without water, how could this regency be developed?" (END/RD/LC/JS/240706)