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
"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
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
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
"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.