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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Food security an issue as weather effects linger

Food security an issue as weather effects linger

Three consecutive years of devastating floods coupled with a drought in some parts

of the country have left about half a million people dependent on food aid. NGOs

have warned that the situation is likely to get worse in coming years.

"I'm concerned the underlying cycle of drought and flooding that has been going

on for years is pushing people into debt and forcing them to find alternative sources

of food," said Michael Bird of Oxfam Great Britain. "The 'hungry period'

[the time before harvesting when food is most scarce] seems to be getting longer."

The concerns of NGOs like Oxfam-GB and others have deepened after signs that El Nino,

a climatic phenomenon bringing erratic weather to the region, has returned. Compounding

difficulties is general donor reluctance to supply additional food aid.

"Whether it becomes a critical national crisis or just a food deficit to be

concerned about, depends on having rains and a little longer wet season," said

Talmage Payne of World Vision. "I think without a doubt there will be a food

problem [next year]."

Cambodia received insufficient rains early in the wet season that caused rice crops

to wither in many rural areas. The National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM)

said that Battambang, Prey Veng and Pursat - which accounted for more than 70 percent

of the 135,000 hectares damaged by drought - were particularly badly affected.

At the same time provinces such as Kandal and Stung Treng were inundated with floodwaters

after heavy rains in parts of Laos and China.

Late rains in Cambodia have resulted in only 60 percent of the normal rice planting

area of two million hectares being planted by late September.

That figure has since improved, but observers said it would require another month

of steady rains to ensure a successful harvest. And they warn that would be unusual

in a typical wet season.

"[The drought] is a slow onset disaster," said Dinah Dimelante, emergency

relief officer with World Vision.

To help those affected, the NGO has cooperated with others to implement 'Work for

Food' programs. Drought-stricken families are digging wells and planting vegetables,

while those suffering from the effects of flooding, who are generally confined to

their villages, have been given food, water containers, mosquito nets, plastic sheets

and medicines.

The government and aid organizations were forced to step in early this year to prevent

crop failures since rice seed, which is normally saved for next year's planting,

had already been eaten in many areas.

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization has supplied nearly 2,000 metric tons

of rice seed to the Ministry of Agriculture. A coalition of NGOs handed out 1,500

metric tons in food aid - mainly rice - to families in the hardest-hit areas. The

NGOs said more would be needed soon.

"No one is falling over themselves to give food to Cambodia at the moment,"

said Bird. "It does not seem to be a high profile situation. If we can raise

money, we'll be distributing food."

The specter of food insecurity could become a critical issue as next year's general

election approaches, and parties lobby for votes. Relief agencies have cited the

govern-ment's failure to set up adequate rice distribution systems and a lack of

reliable information as critical issues threatening food security.

The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), using stocks supplied by King Norodom Sihanouk, distributed

rice to about 2,000 people camped in front of its party headquarters in Phnom Penh

in September. Additional food appeals from Kampong Speu and neighboring provinces

were also received.

Rice production in Cambodia has actually increased over the last few years - for

example there was a surplus of 104,000 metric tons in 1997. Another innovation is

the state-owned rice banks which were set up to alleviate food shortages. But with

much of the crop sold abroad, significant amounts of aid are still required each

year.

"Cambodia can easily produce enough to meet its needs, [and] has been for five

years or more," said Talmage Payne. "What's going wrong is that a great

deal of rice is being sold and exported. It gets re-imported during the hungry season

for two to three times the price in nice little bags. You have a year like this,

and it comes pouring back across the border."

Statistics from the NCDM show this year's drought affected more than two million

people in eight provinces, and damaged 135,000 hectares of rice crops. Flooding on

the other hand, which lasted a month or more, affected about 1.5 million people and

covered almost 60,000 hectares.

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