Rats exacerbate food insecurity in Chin State

Food insecurity in Myanmar’s remote and impoverished Chin State, northwestern Myanmar, has worsened following a major infestation of rats.

“It has been well documented that food insecurity in Chin is chronic,” Chris Kaye, country representative for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) told IRIN from Yangon, the former Burmese capital.

“The rat infestation has made this acute in several areas and this acute situation remains, particularly among communities in Madupi and Paletwa [townships],” he said.

According to WFP, farmers are now struggling to meet day-to-day food needs and resorting to edibles gathered from the forests.

Others are migrating to border areas inside India in search of work.

“We are doing what we can to address these needs through an inter-agency effort and progress is being made. However, ongoing information collection and reports from the field suggest that we have a long way to go before we can say the situation is in any way improving,” Kaye warned.

Photo: ReliefWeb
A map of Myanmar highlighting Chin State where food insecurity has been described as chronic

Food insecurity

Food insecurity in Myanmar, much less Chin state - wedged along the northwestern border between India and Bangladesh, and undoubtedly the least developed area of the country - is far from new.

According to a 2005 UN Development Programme (UNDP) household survey, one third of Myanmar’s population lives below the poverty line.

Some 70 percent of Chin State’s 500,000 people, comprised of 10 highland townships, live below the poverty line and 40 percent are without adequate food sources, Human Right Watch (HRW) said in a report on 28 January.

Some 85 percent of Chins rely on rotational, slash-and-burn farming for their livelihoods, but steep mountains and deep gorges mean farms are prone to soil erosion, and soil exhaustion is also common due to a lack of viable farmland, the report said.

Limited international presence

Few international organisations and NGOs are on the ground, due largely to issues of access and strict government guidelines governing humanitarian presence.

Only a few villages are easily accessible by road during the rainy season, making transport of food and other commodities particularly difficult.

There are reportedly only 1,700km of vehicle-accessible roads, and parts of southern Chin State remain inaccessible from the north, while much of the almost 14,000sqkm area has no electricity or reliable communications system.

“As a result, many Chin are largely isolated from each other and the outside world,” the HRW report said.

While WFP and its partners have been providing food aid through food-for-work programmes since 2005, levels of assistance have been limited. Most farmers continue to struggle, relying on local church networks in this largely Christian area.

Photo: 2008 John Tuihing
A large-scale rat infestation has devastated crops in Chin State

Rat invasion

Since late 2007, such coping mechanisms have been sorely tested following a serious rat infestation and the resultant decimation of crops in northern and western parts of Chin State.

According to a July report by the Chin Human Rights Organization based in Canada, more than 100,000 people - 20 percent of the population - are now affected by food shortages.

Attracted to an indigenous variety of bamboo that flowers every 50 years, the rats feed on the fruit and seeds of the flowering bamboo and multiply rapidly.

Once the fruit supply is exhausted, the marauding rats then turn to nearby farms where they destroy standing crops and stored grain.

The overall impact of the rat infestation will probably last for the next two to three years, experts say. Previous infestations have led to food shortages and famine-like conditions

WFP “very concerned”

“While food assistance is reaching some of the most acutely vulnerable communities, we remain very concerned and will continue to do what we can to engage collaboratively with partners and the authorities to bring broader support to the affected communities,” the WFP’s Kaye said.

To combat the rat crisis, in January WFP launched a “Food plus Cash for Work” programme in six severely affected townships (Tonzang, Tiddim, Htantlang, Madupi, Paletwa and Hakha) with the aim of increasing community assets while offering livelihood opportunities to acquire food.

Activities focus on improving productive assets that will increase the area’s food security, such as agricultural land development, road construction, and projects identified by the communities themselves.

The cash component is designed to meet additional food needs, and help those in debt.

More than 6,000 households in 50 villages will benefit from the programme which is expected to run till June 2009.