A man caries pork at a market in Phnom Penh. An array of factors, from rising food demand and high oil prices to global warming, could make high costs for essentials such as rice wheat and milk a permanent fixture, experts say.
Chrang Chamres – On the long, gently sloping bank of Cambodia's
Tonle river, Doem Lao chops half a dozen large fish heads in the early morning
for the one meal that her family will eat that day.
It is the 45-year-old farmer's fourth unseasonably cold dawn
in this quiet Muslim neighborhood on the outskirts of Phnom
Penh, where her extended family has set up camp with others from
their village in the southern province
Like tens of thousands of rural Cambodians, they have joined
the annual migration to the river to buy enough fish to make a year's worth of prahok, the pungent fermented paste that
is the only source of protein for many in the Kingdom’s impoverished rural
But the rice they brought from home has nearly run out and
the fish have yet to appear in the large nets strung across the river in front
of their camp.
The crude bamboo and metal mesh processing stalls on the
riverbank are silent – and February is the last month of the fishing season.
A sudden drop-off in the numbers of prahok fish has seen
their price more than triple this year, up to as high as 50 US cents a kilogram
from around 12 cents, putting this most basic of Cambodian commodities out of
reach for many.
While not normally a benchmark by which to measure food
security, prahok prices have highlighted the spiraling costs of staple goods
that are threatening Cambodia's
poorest with hunger.
"We eat prahok every day. Last year we made so much
that we could sell some or trade it for rice," Doem Lao said, sitting in a
tight circle with other village women and a few young children.
"This year I'm not at all hopeful. Some of us have left
already. We're not going to have enough prahok. We're not even going to have
enough rice," she said.
Across Asia the cost of
food is rising, for a variety of reasons, from higher demand and spiking global
oil prices to environmental factors like global warming which disrupt the
normal agricultural cycles.
But while other regional governments have responded by
cutting import tariffs or establishing national food stockpiles, Cambodia
appears reluctant to step in and halt the
upward climb of food costs.
For poor Cambodians, this means that in addition to losing their
prahok, they are not able to supplement their already meager diets with other
foods, particularly meat.
"Everything now is so expensive," said another
village woman, Bhum Sap, rattling off the current prices of chicken, pork and
beef, which can cost as much as $5 a kilogram.
A victim of its own
in some ways, has become a victim of its own economic success. The country has
recorded economic growth averaging 11 percent over the past three years,
spurred on by a galloping tourism sector and strong garment and building
Growing interest by foreign investors and a real estate boom
that has helped create more than a few overnight millionaires have resulted in
an unprecedented explosion of wealth.
But the sudden influx of cash into the fragile economy has
not come without its pitfalls.
Over the past year inflation has spiked at 10.8 percent,
compared with 2.8 percent at the end of 2006, driving up the cost of food and
other staple goods and pushing the most vulnerable deeper into poverty.
"About 8.5 percentage points of December's inflation
rate of 10.8 percent was accounted for by food price inflation," said the
International Monetary Fund's Cambodia
representative John Nelmes.
For as many as 2.6 million people living in extreme poverty,
the situation has been worsening over the last several years, which have been
marked by poor harvests brought on by natural disasters such as flood or
"Too many Cambodians still suffer from hunger and
malnutrition for some or most of the time," the World Food Programme (WFP)
said on its website.
The unrelenting rise in food costs only adds more depth to
"WFP is very concerned about the general increase of
the cost of the staples, in Cambodia
as well as elsewhere," said WFP country director for Cambodia,
Food inflation has affected aid efforts at a crucial time,
as aid agencies anticipate the need for more handouts in rural areas facing a
leaner than normal year ahead.
In January last year, the WFP paid $237 per metric tonne of
rice, a cost that has now risen to $367 a tonne, Keusters said.
"For every dollar received from the international and
local donor community, we buy 55 percent less rice. With the general increase
in the cost of food, the need for food assistance will not decrease," he
"On the contrary. As Cambodia faces new challenges such
as climate change, changes in food availability, high energy prices,
globalization and many more, we all need to strategize better," he said. (AFP)