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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Massive food aid needed

Massive food aid needed

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: A ripening rice field provides fertile ground for the thoughts of a Kampot rice farmer who has had her share of struggles. NGOs have warned that food shortages are certain after crop failures in major rice-growing provinces caused by continued drought and subsequent flooding.

Relief agencies are gearing up to distribute substantial amounts of food aid after

the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) reported a desperate need for rice in some rural

areas. The move follows recent debilitating droughts and flooding across much of

Cambodia.

"It is not yet a disaster," said Yuki Hibi, an official with the WFP, "but

we are sure we will see food insecurity next year."

In its needs assessment survey issued October 24 the WFP states that more than 600,000

people living in Prey Veng, Kampong Speu, Battambang and Svay Rieng provinces will

require 6,500 metric tons of rice before the end of the year to avoid widespread

hunger.

Other areas are less severely affected but will still need another 3,500 metric tons

of food aid.

Hardly a drop of rain fell in some districts during the first four months of the

wet season, which caused the crucial August rice harvest to fail. That was compounded

by the depletion of government rice banks, which have been used up to counter the

effects of poor harvests over the last three years.

Low yields during the past four months have also meant that one of the most important

traditional strategies for coping with hard times - selling household assets - has

been exhausted, as valuables were sold in previous years. That has left many reliant

on what they can find from foraging.

"I've been speaking to people who don't have rice and are eating the wild cassava

they find in the forest," said Michael Bird of Oxfam GB. "People have coping

mechanisms, but these need to be protected and perhaps enhanced. The government needs

to work out a rice policy that puts food security ahead of other concerns."

Some relief agencies said they were worried that 'donor fatigue' could hamper efforts

to get the 10,000 tons of food aid the WFP says is required.

However the government's National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) dismissed

such concerns. Officials are con-fident sufficient food can be supplied to rural

residents.

And with a general election looming in nine months there are obvious concerns that

food aid could be hijacked for political purposes. Similar concerns caused the delay

of food aid prior to February's local elections, said Oxfam GB.

Aid agencies said they would closely monitor food distribution to prevent political

meddling.

"We always tell ... the government to speak clearly and not to tell people that

this aid is distributed on behalf of any party," said Phoeuk Sok, Oxfam GB's

humanitarian program coordinator. "We will work with any party. That message

should be very clear with local authorities."

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) was skeptical that government agencies like

NCDM would operate impartially.

"We believe that these organizations concentrate on political gain rather than

solving problems," said SRP lawmaker Son Chhay. "They are waiting [to distribute

food] until closer to the election and then they will remind people to vote for the

party that will give them food."

NGOs have for the most part praised the government's help in calculating how much

aid is needed in Cambodia's rural areas, although there was general agreement that

there was room for improvement.

"The NCDM is pretty embryonic and their basic gathering mechanisms are being

developed," said Antony Spalton, country head of the International Federation

of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "The Cambodian Red Cross (CRC)

has the capacity to clarify those numbers by bringing together the whole development

process with the NCDM so there will be credible and reliable reporting [in future]."

Oxfam GB said the recent rapid assessment of food needs had largely sidestepped government

sources as it was unable to provide reliable information.

"We cannot rely on information from the government or the CRC because it is

not complete," said Oxfam GB's Phoeuk Sok. "We could not wait any longer,

so [the NGOs] took the initiative to do the assessment."

WFP head Rebecca Hansen said the organization's in-country stock of rice would cover

some needs, but more would probably be required before the end of the year.

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