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?"
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
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.