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SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Feb. 2) - An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 children in the West could drop out of school during the year or face serious health risks if the drought continues, a report by Save the Children Fund Fiji revealed yesterday.

The non-government organization is calling on the Ministry of Education to act immediately as any unnecessary delay could only mean more long-term suffering for these children.

A two-day drought assessment report, conducted last month, found that the children who were worst affected were from Ba, Tavua and parts of Rakiraki.

It found that the harsh and dry conditions, which began in September 2004, had seriously affected farmers in the cane farming and agriculture belt.

As a result these farmers were experiencing difficulties in sending their children to school because there was no money for bus fares, lunch, school fees and for books.

It found that children who were undernourished in these areas were irritable and had low concentration in class because of poor nutrition and irregular water supply.

The assessment found that primary school children in most schools were encouraged to share lunches with those who couldn't afford it.

According to teachers, secondary school students would make excuses for not bringing lunch to school to avoid embarrassment.

The report also found that due to the lack of employment opportunities in the drought-affected areas, many families were gradually becoming mobile.

The most affected were farm laborers who either moved with their families in search of better opportunities or left their children in the care of a parent or relative.

Margaret Logavatu, who compiled the report, said that as a result of this mobility, many children were being separated from their parents, which was likely to contribute toward larger social problems.

District Officer Rakiraki Josefa Kama said his office had exhausted its Emergency Relief Fund for 2004 and was awaiting funds for 2005.

He said schools facing irregular water supply often closed until the problem was fixed.

Apart from schools, the Rakiraki farming area with 2,200 families were also affected by the drought, the Sugar Cane Growers Council Office in Rakiraki said.

Satya Singh of the National Farmers Union Office in Tavua said the worst affected were mainly the interior of Viti Levu.

He said of the 1,.600 farmers in Tavua, about 70 percent were experiencing hardships as a direct result of the drought.

In Ba, the District Office is currently being manned by clerical staff only who are yet to assess the extent of the damage caused by the drought.

However, the Ba Health Inspector's Office has assessed the situation and found that 600 people from 117 cane farming families were directly affected by the drought.

School visits conducted by Save the Children found that teachers were doing everything they could to encourage parents to send their children to school including agreeing to a payment plan for school fees.

However, the teachers said they could only do so much and required the assistance of outside agencies to help alleviate poverty in the area.

The Minister for Education could not be contacted for a comment yesterday but a senior Education official in the West said the ministry was yet to conduct an assessment to determine how badly the families and their children were affected and its impact on education.

Save the Children said head teachers who were interviewed believed that the worst of the drought was yet to come.

It said children at the affected schools needed immediate assistance in the form of school fees and books; bus fares and a school feeding program.

It recommended that:

The Government make available adequate food stocks for families to ensure a reduced risk of ill-health and movement of people in search of jobs elsewhere, and

Co-operation among health care, water, education and other authorities was essential and that they be equipped to conduct assessments and plan intervention activities.

The report supported the call for some form of on-going educational assistance throughout 2005 for affected families.

While it was encouraged by the $500,000 allocation for emergency relief, it urged the ministry to consider the plight of the families and act immediately.

February 3, 2005

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