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UN fears food shortage in Myanmar

UN agriculture officials say, cyclone Nargis prevents many farmers in Myanmar's rice-growing region from planting their new crop, raising fears of food shortages this year.
AFP | By HT Correspondent, Bangkok
UPDATED ON JUN 04, 2008 06:59 PM IST

Cyclone Nargis has prevented many farmers in Myanmar's rice-growing region from planting their new crop, raising fears of food shortages this year, UN agriculture officials said Wednesday.

Rice stocks and paddies were pummelled when the deadly storm hit, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has stressed that the new planting season must begin in early June to stave off further tragedy.

But early June has crept around, and still farmers are languishing without aid supplies more than one month after the cyclone hit and left more than 133,000 people dead or missing.

"Many areas are still empty and farmers haven't yet come back because of the lack of shelter and lack of food," the FAO's deputy regional representative Hiroyuki Konuma told reporters in Bangkok.

"We have to complete sowing by the end of July latest otherwise it will create tremendous damage to productivity and affect income and eventually will affect the national security of Myanmar itself."

The FAO estimates that 16 percent of the 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of agricultural land in the Irrawaddy Delta region have been seriously damaged after the cyclone caused flooding, while sea water has poisoned the soil.

"It's likely that the harvest will not be able to take place for another year," said Paul Risley of the UN's World Food Programme.

"Due to the coincidence of (the cyclone) hitting as the monsoon was just beginning, it's a very catastrophic disaster from that point of view."

Much of the rice seed which would have been used for the monsoon harvest -- which accounts for 80 per cent of Myanmar's annual rice yield -- was lost or damaged by the cyclone, Konuma said.

"If production is affected during monsoon season, then there might be a very serious shortage of rice and Myanmar will have to depend on imported rice from abroad," he told reporters.

Global rice prices have surged in the past year, and analysts have said that if a previously self-sustaining country like Myanmar begins importing, it could push prices of the staple grain even higher.

The FAO is trying to procure more rice seed within Myanmar and wants to sow special high-yield quick-growth varieties which will enable farmers to catch up for lost time as the sowing season nears its end in late July.

The cyclone also affected areas that once housed nearly half of all the pigs and poultry for meat production in Myanmar, but 20 percent of that livestock was lost to Cyclone Nargis.

Fisheries, on which 800,000 people depended, have also been severely affected, the FAO reports.

"These affected areas are the real national food box," said Konuma. In the weeks after the May 2-3 cyclone, Myanmar's military junta blocked entry to overseas aid workers trying to reach some 2.4 million survivors.

The generals have opened access a crack after a visit by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, but more than one million cyclone victims remain without foreign aid.

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