A N early end to the October rains is set to plunge Cambodia into a probable rice shortage crisis, with Co-Premier Hun Sen already forecasting a shortfall of 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes.
Agricultural experts predict wide-ranging and pessimistic spin-offs in the second half of 1995, such as spiraling debt and dissatisfaction around the countryside tailor-made for Khmer Rouge exploitation.
"It is a silent emergency," said Scott Leiper of the NGO Carere, "it could be the worst result in five years."
"It is a damn shame for this to happen now due to natural causes, because the social, political and financial effects might be very big".
For the last five years Leiper was director of the World Food Program.
Cambodia's rice yield is already one of the lowest in the world at around 1.3 tonnes per hectare, less than half that of Thailand and Vietnam.
An early end to the rainy season would further slash the yield from large areas of lowland paddies. Also, much production was lost in flooding around the Tonle Sap this season, Leiper said.
Hun Sen's forecast last week of a minimum 200,000 tonne shortfall was the first indicative information of a potential crisis and a measure of growing government concern.
Leiper said there was no system or relief to cover years of low rice production.
He said it was important that the Cambodian government and international aid donors and agencies "get together and respond to minimize the dissatisfaction that so many people are going to be facing".
"It is not an emergency like Africa," Leiper said, "but it could start backward trends that will be hard to stop as people go into debt."
"We know for a fact that in many areas communities have only six months worth of their annual requirements. It will be in the second half of 1995 when this will take hold," he said.
Vietnamese-grown rice would take up much of the shortfall, but farmers who depend on their own rice production as income would go into debt as they would lack the money to buy, he said.
Leiper said people could lose 30 percent of their next years crop to repay debts to rice mills.
"When people get hungry and poorer there is a debt problem, they get dissatisfied, there tends to be a drift of people into the cities looking for work and a general malaise that could be exploited by the Khmer Rouge, for example".
The minimum "survival" quota is 162 kilograms of milled rice each year for every person.
The necessary rice production is calculated by multiplying that "survival" quota by the number of people in the country.
However, the Cambodian population estimates vary by as much as 400,000 people, and without knowing the actual production - the harvest season runs through to early February - the accurate shortfall would not be known.
Paging system approved
SINGAPORE Telecom International (STI) has been granted Cambodia's first telephone paging license - a ten year deal - and intends to invest $1.4 million over the next two years.
STI's wholly-owned subsidiary SingTel Cambodia Pte Ltd will offer paging services under the service name Phonelink.
Cambodia's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, which signed the agreement, will eventually offer licenses to three paging operators.
SingTel will begin the service early next year, offering numeric and alpha-numeric paging services. Later, value added services will be offered.