Food assistance “likely” for up to a year

Survivors in Myanmar’s cyclone-devastated Ayeyarwady Delta will likely need food assistance for as long as a year, the UN warns.

Many farmers will not be able to plant rice for this year’s crucial monsoon paddy crop, due to the severe damage to their fields and a shortage of farming supplies after the category four storm swept across southern Myanmar on 2 and 3 May, leaving 134,000 people dead or missing and some 2.4 million destitute.

Paul Risley, a spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), says Cyclone Nargis, and its accompanying tidal surge, washed away or severely damaged the rice stocks of most of the delta’s rural households, leaving many families with little to sustain them in the coming months.

And while Myanmar authorities and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are working to ensure that at least some rice is planted so as not to lose the coming season completely, Risley said most farmers, and their labourers, are probably still at least six months away, if not longer, from replacing their lost food stocks.

“A certain percentage of households and farmers in the delta area will likely require some form of food assistance through their next harvest, which could be up to a year away,” Risley told IRIN in Bangkok.

Devastated farmlands

According to the FAO, about 200,000 hectares, or 16 percent, of the delta’s total 1.3 million hectares of agricultural land were severely damaged in the cyclone and would “not be available for planting this season”.

Some of these fields have suffered severe salinity damage - due to the tidal surge that swept salt water up to 35km inland - and will require environmental remediation. Others remain submerged more than a month after the disaster struck.

Planting for Myanmar’s crucial monsoon rice crop is normally under way at this time, and authorities are racing to help farmers whose lands do not require environmental remediation to plant rice in the coming weeks.

“We have to complete the sowing of seedlings by the end of July at the latest,” said Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO’s deputy regional representative in Bangkok. “Otherwise it will create tremendous damage to the productivity of rice … the income and livelihood of rural farmers, and it will eventually affect the national food security of Myanmar itself.”


Photo: AFP Photo/IRIN
Survivors of Cyclone Nargis reach out for food aid near Myanmar's largest city Yangon

Yet Konuma said even farmers whose lands were not seriously damaged either by salinity or flooding could battle to plant this season, hampered by lack of inputs.

“There are many obstacles before farmers can actually start the cultivation,” he said. “Many areas are still empty and farmers have not yet come back because of a lack of shelter or lack of food. If they are not assured of sufficient shelter or food, they cannot stay long on the land,” he said.

Many farmers still lacked inputs such as seeds, tillers and draught animals, and it was not known how rapidly such materials could be distributed, he added.

All this, said WFP, suggested that many families, in addition to those whose lands were severely damaged, would simply not be able to plant their crops, and landless labourers would need extensive food support.

“Farmers who are able to plant now will not have food until that rice crop grows in six months,” said Risley. “Farmers who don’t plant at all this year will not have a crop until next year.”

Imports likely

Given the likely reduction in the region’s rice output, WFP is suggesting it may have to import some food, which could be a sensitive issue with a government that has prided itself on its self-sufficiency and tightly regulates all imports.

“Myanmar has generally been self-sufficient in food grains in recent years, but this cyclone was a devastating hit, especially on rice stocks, which means it will be more and more difficult for WFP to purchase locally,” Risley said.

In the coming weeks, WFP, with its partners, will conduct detailed food security assessments. A team will be conducting household level surveys in villages to examine questions of food consumption, availability and prices.

From this and FAO data, the organisation will draw up a plan for medium- and long-term food aid to the region.

“The key issue for WFP will be whether we can continue to procure food locally or whether we will also begin to import rice to meet the needs of the WFP pipeline providing food to cyclone survivors,” Risely said.

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