"IF I didn't receive this rice, I would have had to sell my chickens and pigs,"
one woman who saw her house swept away by the November floods told a relief official.
This was precisely the prospect that NGOs' relief efforts were trying to prevent,
as many of the poorest of the poor were tempted to sell off their resources - pigs
and poultry - to eke through the flood-induced hardships. This would have set back
their savings and recent economic progress by 3-4 years, one official estimates,
thereby continuing their poverty.
While there can be no denying the suffering of this woman as well as hundreds of
thousands of other Cambodians, the total cost of the floods to Cambodia is still
In some ways, the floods may yet be shown to have actually benefited the Kingdom,
according to several Cambodian government and NGO officials in the process of collecting
data concerning the total amount of crops and land destroyed.
While these officials stress that it is too early to draw definitive conclusions,
they paint a picture of pockets of rural poverty and suffering amid the possibility
of a national increase in the rice yield - even the likelihood of surplus.
This year's flooding was arguably the worst in nearly 20 years, but paddies covered
with water does not necessarily mean lower yields. Whether 1996 will see an increase
or drop in national rice yield depends on the total amount of hectares destroyed.
It depends on how long land was submerged under water, explained Harry Nesbitt, an
agronomist and Project Manager of the Cambodia-IRRI-Australia project, a rice research
"Where [flood] inundation was long enough, there will be no yield. Where inundation
was a short period, rice will benefit," he said.
Floods bring fertile silt from upriver which could actually boost rice yields, particularly
in areas where the rice soils are sandy and relatively infertile. The flooding, say
some observers, may even enable farmers to expand the amount of land under cultivation
in the dry season.
The dry season crop accounts for about 16 percent of total rice production, according
to Peter Guest, project officer of the UN World Food Program (WFP).
But, in the short-term, the picture was by no means rosy. "The floods definitely
increased the cost of crops in Phnom Penh, and increased the costs of production,
repair, and replanting," Nesbitt said. "[It] destroyed a lot of a infrastructure."
Estimates of the total area destroyed assume heightened political importance because
of the promise of aid money. Some observers argue that local officials artificially
inflate figures of the hectares destroyed in order to receive additional relief funds.
The director of the Disaster Management Department of the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC),
Dr Uy Sam-Ath, said that in communes and villages where its teams cannot verify the
specific amount of hectares destroyed, it must rely on the estimates of local officials.
In these cases, estimates are typically 25% above the reality, he said.
According to him, the floods destroyed 937,473 hectares in Cambodia - 85 percent
of that, or 800,885 hectares, was in Prey Veng province.
Prey Veng was particularly hard hit because of the long duration of the flood, the
province's limited amount of land under cultivation, and its dense population.
The CRC estimates that the floods affected 2.8 million people in 17 out of 22 provinces.
Of these, 580,000 people were "seriously affected" - suffering a short-term
food shortage and in need of emergency relief.
As part of relief efforts, the CRC provided an estimated 7,500 metric tons of rice
and nearly $125,000 in materials and food. The United Nations Department of Humanitarian
Affairs and the UN agencies in Cambodia mobilized more than $1 million in aid. The
co-Prime Ministers as well as some NGOs, provided their own relief initiatives.
An increase in local rice prices was one immediate consequence of the floods, Sam-Ath
said. The price in Phnom Penh swelled to $270 per ton, $50-60 more than usual. In
Prey Veng, the price rose to $245 and about the same in Takeo. The CRC and most NGOs
purchased emergency stocks on the local market.
In total, the floods cost the national economy 786.5 billion riel or roughly US$290
million, according to estimates of the Undersecretary of Agriculture, Forestry &
Fisheries May Sam Oeun.
The economy suffered losses of 1.15 billion riel in livestock killed, 1.64 billion
riel in irrigation damage, and 7.84 billion riel in agriculture-related crop damages,
Some NGOs, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Program
(WFP), and IRRI, expressed caution about predicting the total amount of hectares
destroyed until detailed assessments are made. Concrete results are due next month,
Despite the floods, Cambodia will have a surplus of 150,000 tons of rice this year,
according to Sam Oeun of the Ministry of Agriculture, but the value of the surplus
will be less than the cost of the floods.
In 1995 the Kingdom had a 126,900-ton surplus, Cambodia's first surplus in over 20
years. The 150,000 figure for 1996 revises First Prime Minister Ranariddh's prediction
earlier this year of a 500,000-ton rice surplus.
Some critics have argued that political leaders inflate rice surplus estimates in
order to boost Cambodia's status as a rice-exporting nation. Part of this effort
involved reducing the assumption of the per-capita rice-consumption figure from 162kg
to 151kg in 1995. The Ministry of Agriculture argued that this revision was necessary
to take into account the changing diet and growing "urbanization" of the
Political considerations may have also been a factor, some observers say. Reducing
the per-capita figure shrinks the national food requirement, thereby increasing the
national surplus amount.
The wide-ranging consequences of altering the estimate underscores the sensitivity
of other statistical assumptions, especially in a country where accurate data are
hard to come by. Figures for post-harvest losses, paddy available for cultivation,
and yield are all based on assumptions - shaky assumptions, according to some analysts,
that are easy to manipulate for political purposes. Even fundamental assumptions
such as Cambodia's population size and growth rates reverberate in production and
This year's data concerning rice yield and hectares destroyed seem subject to countervailing
political pressures. On the one hand, local officials may have an incentive to inflate
damage estimates in order to receive additional relief and assistance funds. On the
other hand, top political leaders want to increase their surplus estimates in order
to increase the Kingdom's international stature.
The final figures will be unveiled early next year, when the true costs of the suffering
- and the benefits - of the floods should be known.