More than a year after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, food security shows signs of improvement, but huge challenges remain, particularly in the southern areas of the Ayeyarwady Delta.
Some 140,000 people were killed and 2.4 million affected when the category four storm swept across the low-lying nation on 2 and 3 May 2008.
"The victims in the northern part of the delta are on their way towards recovery," Chris Kaye, WFP country representative, told IRIN in Yangon, noting, however, that critical needs persisted elsewhere.
"Limited agricultural productivity and low levels of employment or other income-generating activities mean that the coming lean season will be particularly difficult for families to feed themselves," he said, referring to the south, which typically has only one rice harvest a year as opposed to two in the north.
"There is clear evidence that much more needs to be done to ensure we have fully put victims back on their feet and that families and communities can sustain themselves," Kaye said - an assessment echoed by others in the humanitarian community.
"While the life-threatening crisis is over, communities are still dependent on assistance since their livelihoods are not yet back to normal," Marc Sekpon, Nargis response coordinator for Action Against Hunger, said.
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More than half the labour force works in agriculture, growing rice, corn, sugarcane and other crops.
"Food will not be truly secure until livelihoods have been restored," Tesfai Ghermazien, a senior emergency and rehabilitation coordinator with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Myanmar, added.
"Agricultural support, including seeds and tools, is critical for the upcoming planting season," said Belete Temesgen, relief and food department manager for World Vision/Myanmar, which is targeting 140 villages in the townships of Pyapon, Bogale and Hinggyi.
"If they fail to plant due to lack of cash or seeds, they will [slip] away from recovery and this will further erode their coping mechanisms," he warned.
Greatest risk areas
According to the latest WFP Rapid Food Security Assessment (RFSA) conducted earlier this year, food insecurity remains a serious concern in the southern and western areas of the delta.
The survey showed that 51 percent of sampled households in the Labutta and Bogale townships relied on food aid for rice supplies, while only 25 percent reported a recovery in their livelihoods.
A majority - 83 percent - of those surveyed were reportedly in debt, with food purchases the dominant cause.
Unemployment is high, and support is needed to help reconstitute income-generating activities of those affected, whether in agriculture, fishing or petty trading, Kaye said.
"Recovery will require several more years of support and input," he said.
According to the FAO, just 5-10 percent of all lost fishing gear has been replaced, and there is still a shortage of draft animals for tilling by small and medium-sized farmers.
Numbers of pigs, chickens and ducks also need boosting given their importance as a source of income for scores of vulnerable landless households, the agency said.
Photo: Greg Constantine/WFP
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To rehabilitate individual and community assets, WFP and its partners are increasingly shifting towards more sustainable, medium-term recovery programmes, such as land development and activities that can enhance food production and access to markets.
"While WFP food assistance will be phased out over the course of the next seven months or so, our exit is conditional on the ability of families and communities to extract themselves from the high levels of debt they have incurred as they have tried to rebuild their lives, and to move toward more sustainable livelihoods," Kaye stressed.
In the past year, WFP has delivered food assistance to more than one million beneficiaries, comprising 70,000 MT. The agency is wrapping up operations in Pyapon and Mawgyun, but extending operations in Bogale and Labutta townships until the end of 2009, involving 300,000 people.
Although significantly fewer than the one million people who once received food assistance at the height of the agency's operation in October, the number is significant in an area once referred to as the "bread basket" of Myanmar - which previously did not require food assistance, say specialists.