In our series on the Asian rice crisis, we focus on Myanmar today. In the beginning of May Cyclone Nargis killed more than 70,000 people there, and destroyed the livelihood of more than a million people. Severe flooding triggered by the storm devastated farmland and resources needed for the rice harvest and the sowing of the next crop.
Workers carrying rice packages in Myanmar
The Irrawaddy delta usually produces more than sixty percent of Myanmar’s annual rice production. But after the cyclone hit the region its inhabitants literally lost everything and haven’t yet been able to recover from the catastrophe. Their homes are still in ruins and food is scarce. But besides this loss they now also lack the resources and means to sow new rice. But if the sowing isn’t completed within 2 – 3 weeks, a massive crop failure will be the result.
Monika Stärk, executive member of the board of the German-Pacific Business Association, has just returned from Myanmar. She reports: "The floods haven’t yet receded. That means that still large parts of agricultural land are swamped. Now the rehabilitation of the land and the re-construction of the irrigation systems should have top priority. And there’s also the challenge to provide enough rice seeds which are salt water resistant -- but these are apparently not sufficiently available."
Peasants in dire straits
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations -- the FAO -- the complete rice harvest of the delta had been destroyed by the cyclone and more than half of the agricultural land cannot be cultivated at the moment. Besides these obstacles there is a serious lack of farm hands, animals for ploughing, tools, seeds and fertilizers.
Michael von Hauff, a professor of national economics at the University of Technology in Kaiserslautern, visits Myanmar regularly. He teaches there at the University of Economics in Yangon. His assessment: "The livelihood of the farmers in the delta has been destroyed for at least 2 – 3 years. That means it will take 2 – 3 years until a regular rice harvest will be possible. Only then will the people in the delta be self-sufficient again."
The FAO has also voiced its concerns about the difficulty of sowing the rice on time. According to their studies the sowing won’t be completed until the end of June. It has already warned that an insufficient rice harvest is very likely this year and says this could lead to a ‘catastrophe’.
No money to buy rice
To further complicate the dire situation world market prices for rice are rising continuously. Monika Stärk of the German-Pacific Business Association says it would be likely that Myanmar couldn’t even afford to import necessary supplies:
"Inflation in Myanmar is already extremely high and the government clearly doesn’t have the financial means to subsidise rice imports. So now the government has to assure that the next rice harvest is secured."
But as the aftermath of the cyclone has shown, Myanmar’s military government is already overburdened in providing sufficient relief efforts. Economist Michael von Hauff says that the military junta’s insufficient and slow response to the cyclone catastrophe shows that the country is still strongly dependent on foreign aid:
"All I can hope for now is that rice will be supplied to Myanmar by its neighbours. Otherwise there will be a famine which will surely cost many more lives."
The race against time hasn’t yet been lost. But now it’s solely up to Myanmar’s military junta to concentrate all its efforts to assure timely rice sowing. If it doesn’t manage to do so soon the cyclone catastrophe might be followed by a second, man-made, catastrophe.