“They've had what they call the hungry season,” Oxfam Australia Executive Director Andrew Hewett said.
In the past the lean period in the poverty-hit nation generally lasted only months. “That's been prolonged and we're now talking about people not having enough to eat, going to bed hungry every night, for about five months of the year," Hewett added.
The survey found that more than 70 percent of households surveyed across East Timor were "food insecure".
The number of children under 5 suffering from chronic malnutrition was as high as 59 percent in many areas, while in some districts food insecurity touched 90 percent of households.
Overall malnutrition and hunger affect “about one in two children under the age of five,” Hewett said.
East Timor is one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia, the other being the Philippines. More than 40 per cent of its population of about a million people lives below the poverty line with less than US$ 0.55 per day.
Unemployment is high and can reach 60 per cent among urban youth.
In rural areas things are a bit different, except for poverty levels. Here families eke out a living from subsistence farming but depend massively on foreign food aid.
For humanitarian organisations operating in the country one of the main causes of the current food crisis is the worldwide rise in basic food prices like rice which began early on this year and has not abated. Political instability is another.
After achieving independence in 2002 following a long and brutal Indonesian occupation, the country has not yet come to grips with its own internal problems. In 2006 the East Timor army tore apart along regional lines when about 600 soldiers were sacked. This triggered violence that killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes. East Timorese President Ramos Horta himself barely escaped an attack against his life last February.
Add to this to the country’s already high level of underdevelopment and any progress is indeed hard to make.
The discovery of large reserves of natural gas and oil in Timorese waters has not improved living conditions or favoured economic growth.
According to Oxfam the global financial crisis was also hitting East Timor and the world's other poor countries as rich countries turned their attention inwards and looked at cutting aid.
“There is a need for greater support for emergency food programs” and “a need to focus on upping our investment in agriculture," Hewett said.
Aid groups, including the Christian Children's Fund, Concern Worldwide and CARE International, agree with Oxfam Australia that a new push to was needed, appealing especially to the United States, the European Union and Japan for help.