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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 200,000 facing food crisis in southeast

200,000 facing food crisis in southeast

200,000 facing food crisis in southeast

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poor.gif

GRAPES OF WRATH

Farmer Sieng Han and his family traveled to the capital in search of assistance

after drought devastated their crops. They now live a squatter's life on the

pavement outside the Industry Ministry.

THE United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is to provide immediate relief to 20,000

people and will likely call for emergency donations to feed an estimated 200,000

facing severe food shortages in southeast Cambodia.

"The situation is very serious. Drought created big problems with the last harvest

and much of the remaining stocks have been bought up by Vietnamese traders,"

said the WFP's acting country director Ken Davies, adding the final figures on the

shortage will be calculated later this month.

The WFP currently provides food aid to 650,000 people throughout the country.

Many of those being helped would have been expected to feed themselves once the next

rice crop was harvested, but preliminary investigations reveal that the El Niño

weather phenomenon has created even greater food shortages and emergency supplies

will likely be needed to feed as many as 200,000 people whose rice crops are now

expected to fail.

"We are going to have to provide assistance to these people for at least six

months - until the next harvest at the end of December," he said, adding that

planting for the next crop has been delayed because of a continuing lack of rain.

The WFP already provides assistance to around 170,000 people in the southeastern

provinces of Prey Veng and Svay Reng, said Davies, adding reports indicate the central

provinces of Kratie and Kampong Cham may also be threatened with severe food shortages.

Hundreds of people from Prey Veng have traveled to Phnom Penh over the past week,

seeking direct government assistance.

"I have five children and they are very hungry - we have nothing to eat,"

said a farmer who traveled to the capital from Kamchay Meas district, one of the

worst affected areas.

"If it does not rain soon we will not be able to plant for the next harvest.

I am frightened my family will starve," he said.

Farmer Sieng Han, 39, his wife and four children now live on the pavement outside

the Ministry of Industry. Begging earns them up to 3,000 riel per day - barely enough

to buy rice to make soup.

Living on the street has been a harrowing experience for Han's family. Their youngest

child was stolen recently while the family was sleeping. According to the newspaper

Koh Santepheap, the thieves tried to sell the child for $30 to a health worker. After

five days police found and returned the infant.

"I will go back as soon as the rain falls," said Han, who is disabled and

uses a wheelchair.

Farmer Uch Savarn, 36, said his family and many others from the village of Sambour

had food sufficient for just three days.

"The cows in my village are dead - there is no grass to eat and the rice fields

are dry. There is no rain so I can't plant rice. What about food for next year?"

he said.

Ironically, so far this year Cambodia has produced a surplus of rice, but the illegal

export of rice to Thailand and Vietnam has created a shortage and contributed to

a 50% surge in the domestic price compared with the same time last year.

Prices are now at a five-year high, and authorities say Cambodia will have to import

40,000 tonnes of rice within the next two months to stabilize prices and meet local

demand.

Ministry of Agriculture statistics show that Cambodia produces about 1.75 million

tonnes of milled rice each year, and so far this year farmers had produced a surplus

of 105,000 tonnes.

But Ministry of Commerce officials estimate that 500,000 tonnes have been illegally

exported to Vietnam and Thailand.

Davies said widespread drought in Vietnam resulted in poor harvests in some western

and southern regions of Vietnam and had forced traders to buy more Cambodian rice

earlier in the year than usual.

"Vietnam has kept to export commitments so they're coming in and paying good

prices and that has caused a general shortage throughout the country," he said.

Harry Nesbit of the International Rice Research Institute told Reuters that the Southeast

Asian economic crisis had also put pressure on Cambodian rice reserves.

"The international price is reasonably competitive and with the devaluation

of the [Vietnamese] dong they're buying as much rice as they can, wherever they can,

and exporting it," he said.

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