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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rice crop in ruin; more aid sought

Rice crop in ruin; more aid sought

T HE world has been asked to double its pledge of food aid to Cambodia next year as the nation faces one of its worst rice shortages in years, with about one-third of the rice crop crippled.

A deficit of about 300,000 tonnes of rice is predicted for 1995 because of the catastrophic flooding followed by drought in many parts of Cambodia.

The Ministry of Agriculture estimates 544,000 hectares of rice fields - about 37 per cent of the total crop - have been affected.

Late rain and the introduction of water pumps to badly affected districts could yet save some of the crop, but it is clear some communes will be left with nothing.

Earlier in the year, flooding wiped out large tracts of the land available for rice planting.

In Prey Veng, one of the Kingdom's largest rice-growing provinces, nearly three-quarters of rice crop has been damaged, according to government statistics.

The United Nations World Food Program's Rome headquarters appealed in early December for a doubling of food aid to Cambodia. The government has also appealed for urgent rice donations from overseas.

It remains unclear whether enough food will be given.

World Food Programme (WFP) Cambodian director Kenro Oshidari said donor countries might have difficulty providing such aid, particularly as so much has already been given other countries such as Bosnia and Rwanda.

The WFP, which this year gave about 40,000 tonnes of food aid to communities living at subsistence levels or below, "could never cover" Cambodia's estimated 1995 rice shortage, he said. World donors have only pledged 30,000 tonnes in 1995 to Cambodia so far, and many are not able to say if they could give more till April.

The WFP would not complete its own rice harvest figures till January but it was clear there was a "chronic problem".

Reports of deaths caused by the crisis, meanwhile, are beginning to emerge.

In Prey Veng, where the government estimates 148,000 of the province's 195,000 hectare wet-season rice crop has been affected, 12 people are reported to have died from cholera and illnesses caused by inadequate diet.

Provincial governor Tep Narrory said nine people had died of cholera in the isolated Piem Chure village.

The infections had been caused by people drinking unsanitary water from the few sources available to them.

"Ponds, canals and rivers are being used for everything from washing, cleaning humans and animals and they were drinking water without boiling it."

Villagers in Krasang village in Me Sang district said three of their neighbors died after they could not find enough fruit and vegetables to survive on.

Tep Narrory said about ten percent of his people had no food, their survival depending on aid supplies, and 60 per cent were living off the meat of their animals.

Emergency rice supplies were distributed at a rate of 10 to 20kg per family, but would run out in 20 to 30 days. Families had to find ways to help themselves to survive, he said.

Villager Keo Lieung, 55, told the Post she and her grandchildren faced starvation after her daughter left to look for food.

"We have nothing to eat," she sobbed. "Nobody would lend me some money or sell me (food) on credit. I suppose we will die if the situation keeps going on."

Lieung, who did not believe her daughter would return until she believed there was food at the village, said the family had received no help from provincial authorities or aid groups.

In Prey Veng rice fields near the Kompong Cham border, farmers said their meager harvests would not be enough to sustain 18 neighboring villages.

"It has never been this bad in the ten years I have been farming," said villager Om Somaun, as he and his family harvested what they could from their one hectare field. Beside them were five buffalo, munching the rice heads even as the family reaped.

"This is only good for feeding to the cows anyway," he said.

One elderly woman said her village of 224 families was surviving on rice gruel or soup, supplemented with cabbage to make their little rice last longer.

Members of about 50 families had fallen sick because "there is not enough rice for their health".

She complained that rice aid was not getting through to villagers in big enough quantities because corrupt provincial officials were taking much of it. She asked that aid being given directly to the people.

One hundred of the village's men had gone to Phnom Penh or Kompong Cham looking for work and food, but some had already returned empty-handed.

Another villager grabbed a bundle of rice from a wagon and, showing riceless stalk heads and pods black with mold, said: "This rice is sick."

"Please take this back and show it to the First Prime Minister," he asked.

Some villagers from around Cambodia have been doing that themselves, trekking to Phnom Penh to hold protests outside Prince Norodom Ranariddh's residence and government ministries.

The National Assembly canceled its sittings as MPs were instructed to return to their constituencies to offer what help they could.

Prince Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen have traveled to several parts of the country to distribute water pumps.

The Secretary of State for Agriculture, Chhea Song, said the crisis had been caused by a rare combination of flooding followed by drought.

Heavy rain in August and September had caused flooding of the Mekong River which destroyed some 250,000 hectares of rice.

Monsoon winds in October had dried out water in the fields quickly and, with poor irrigation systems had been unable to preserve enough water, drought had set in.

The most severely-hit provinces were Prey Veng, Takeo, Kompong Cham, Battambang, Kompot, Kompong Speu and Kandal.

Chhea Song said the government had distributed about 2000 water pumps around the country, saving about 54,000 hectares of rice.

The government was also selling 1,000 tonnes of rice seed, 40,000 tonnes of fertilizer and 2 million liters of petrol on credit to help farmers grow short-time rice crops in the dry-season.

Cambodia would need about 350,000 tons of rice next year, and the dry season harvests were unlikely to be enough.

"We do not have enough (usable) land and some provinces do not have enough water sources, but we're trying it so at least we can help reduce the problem," Chhea Song said.

In the longer term, aid and investment was needed to improve the nation's irrigation systems.

The Asian Development Bank had given a $10 million loan for two dams in Takeo and Kompong Cham to be restored next year.



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