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Millions at risk from drought

Millions at risk from drought

Senior officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) have

warned that a lack of seasonal rains in many provinces could lead to severe food

shortages for one million people, and that figure could increase.

MAFF's agronomy department produced figures on July 26 showing that rice planting

nationwide is running at only 24 percent of the average. Kampong Speu is the worst

affected by drought - only 1.4 percent of the province's 110,000 hectares has been

sown with rice.

Agronomy department director Nuth Sakhan told the Post his department estimated drought

had affected more than one million people so far this year. "The situation is

very, very serious," Sakhan said, "because almost all the seedlings have

died. The people have no more rice seeds and no water."

Kith Seng, director of planning at MAFF, agreed the situation was "very serious"

and estimated that the drought had affected "several million" people. "Next

year the people will be short of food," he said, "but if the rains return

in two months we will be able to restore some of the cultivation."

The government normally holds in reserve between 3-5,000 tons of fast-growing rice

seed, but both men said the current donation of 3,000 tons of rice seed to alleviate

losses by farmers was insufficient. Two-thirds of the seed came from the UN's Food

and Agricultural Organization, with the balance given from the government's stocks.

"However this [donated] amount will be never sufficient for all farmers,"

said Sakhan. "We will need more help from other donors."

The worsening drought situation has had MAFF worried for almost two months. In a

letter to the nation's agriculture officials in early June, Minister Chan Sarun expressed

concern at the lack of seasonal rains, and requested officials take all possible

measures to help farmers.

"The weather is not favorable for this year's harvest," he wrote. "Insufficient

water in the vast central plains and in the southern and eastern parts of the country

could cause drought."

Last month Sarun assigned working groups to come up with ideas to combat the drought

and collect data on the its impact.

"This situation has delayed plowing and the planting of seeds, and has caused

seedlings to wither," he wrote. "And the unfavorable weather has resulted

in an increase in the numbers of pests in the Traing district in Takeo."

The statistics from MAFF's agronomy department examined rice production across the

country's 24 provinces and municipalities. They revealed that the south and south-east

are the worst affected provinces. Svay Rieng has planted only 1.8 percent of its

normal crop by area, Kampot (6 percent), followed by Takeo (7 percent), and Prey

Veng (10 percent).

The country's rice-basket, Battambang, has planted just over half its normal area,

as have the north-eastern provinces of Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri. Banteay Meanchey

was the least affected with 90 percent cultivation. The remaining provinces have

planted less than one quarter.

The rains across much of the country nearly ceased around two months ago, which has

caused severe hardship for the 85 percent of the population living in rural areas.

The government has tried pumping water into rice fields, but problems have continued

to mount.

The secretary-general of the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM), Poeu

Samy, said it was unclear just how many people were affected, but noted that conditions

were especially bad in Kampong Speu, Takeo and Kampot.

He said NCDM would hold a meeting today, August 2, to which it would invite NGOs

and other interested institutions to discuss action to assist farmers.

"Our committee will intervene by pumping water into the rice fields and providing

people with food and gasoline," he said.

Nhim Vanda, the deputy director of NCDM, said he had visited several provinces to

see the situation for himself. He said those seedlings which had been planted had

been scorched by the sun.

His recent trip took him along National Route 2 from Takeo to the Vietnam border,

and then along Route 3 from Takeo to Kampot province. All the fields, he said, were

dry, and he warned that if the rains held off for a further month the country would

face a food shortage.

"People will not be able to avoid difficulties next year," said Vanda,

"as they already suffered from flooding in 2000 and 2001. But I am still hopeful

there will be rain in August."

In response to worsening conditions on the land, farmers have flocked to the cities

looking for work and food. Sek Kan, a 31-year-old farmer, said he arrived in the

capital on July 30 looking for work. Kan comes from Svay Chrum district in Svay Rieng

province, and said the relentless drought had forced many from his district off their

fields.

He said that in a normal year farmers in his area would have just finished planting

their rice seedlings, but the lack of good rains since May meant that few had been

able to do so.

"This year there has been too little rain for farming," he said. "All

my rice seedlings have dried up, so I cannot farm this year. Life is very hard, and

I have come here to earn some money so that I can feed my children and my wife."

The Post visited 54-year-old Chap Yim in Trapaing Chang village in Kampong Speu.

He walked through his rice paddy behind his house and pulled out some dried seedlings

to show how they have been affected. His entire half-hectare crop has been ruined.

Standing near a desiccated pond next to the field, Yim said all the villagers and

their livestock were facing water shortages, which was a more immediate issue than

the future lack of rice.

However Yim, who has seven children, was well aware his family would probably go

hungry in a few weeks. Most of the 95 families finished planting by the end of July,

he said, but the drought had meant any harvest was now impossible.

"I just don't know how to solve this problem" said Yim. "If there

was still water in the pond we would be able to pump it into our rice fields. Now

we don't even have enough water for drinking."

Yim said his only hope was to wait another three months for rain, and then plant

a quick-growing rice strain known as IR. However he owns no IR seed, so will somehow

have to find the money to buy a small stock.

The World Food Programme's acting country director, Praveen Agrawal, said his organization

was coordinating with the NCDM and was also in discussions with authorities at the

provincial level.

The WFP had not yet been asked by the government to assist, he said, but the UN body

had sufficient rice stocks in Cambodia from which it could draw if necessary.

"We have ongoing programs from which we would borrow if the case were very drastic,

but we have no indication that the case is that extreme," he said. "The

government is taking action and I expect they will convene an emergency coordinating

meeting."

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