Thursday, 09 July 2020

By Larry Jagan

BANGKOK - While Myanmar counts the cost of the Cyclone Nargis disaster and international aid agencies struggle to get relief supplies to an estimated 2.4 million homeless and desperate victims, time is running out for the country's rice farmers to plant new crops and help the country stave off famine.

If seeds are not sewn within the next 30 days in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta - Myanmar's rice bowl - rice production will be dangerously reduced, United Nations food and agriculture specialists warn. Meanwhile, analysts specializing in Myanmar's economy say that other food sectors have also been decimated, raising the risk of food shortages at a time the ruling military junta for political purposes continues to obstruct aid shipments and distribution.

Myanmar's economy was already one of Asia's worst performers, due to decades of economic mismanagement by successive military-run governments. After the cyclone disaster, the risk is rising of a full-blown economic collapse, some contend. "The damage to the economy is serious indeed, both in the short and longer term," said Sean Turnell, a specialist on Myanmar's economy at Macquarie University in Australia. "Rice and agriculture is only part of the picture," he said.

Agricultural experts warn that the cyclone disaster could soon shift the country from being a net rice exporter to importer, which will put new pressures on the country's already strained balance of payments. One week after the cyclone hit and the extent of the devastation was not yet known, Myanmar continued to export rice. Because of the damage "food stores have been lost, seeds have been destroyed, and other assets needed have all been swept away", said Diderik de Vleeschauwer, a spokesman for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Farmers have until the end of June to replant their seedlings, otherwise food production will be sorely reduced," he said. "In the lower [Irrawaddy] Delta, they just do not have the capital to replace the seeds, livestock and tools needed to start replanting rice in the next few months."
The usual planting season starts now in the Irrawaddy Delta, which usually produces as much as two-thirds of Myanmar's annual rice crop. About a quarter of the rice paddy in this area is still flooded with salty sea water carried inland by the cyclone and is littered with decaying animal carcasses and human corpses, which experts say will have to be cleared before planting can begin.

Meanwhile, irrigation channels need to be repaired, paddy walls restored and water pumps replaced to restore what was already an extremely low level of production efficiency, say food and agriculture experts. More than half of the delta's livestock, much of which was used for plowing, reportedly perished in the storm or has since starved.

"This is going to prove a very high opportunity cost for the government in the coming months, particularly given the present and likely future international demand and high prices for rice," said Turnell.

As relief efforts focus primarily on saving human lives, so far little if any agricultural rehabilitation has taken place. "They've got to put their houses back together first," said Paul Risely, a regional spokesman for the UN-affiliated World Food Program (WFP). "Even then the farmers will need to be supported with food supplies until their crops are harvested." The WFP expects to have food-for-work programs in place in the delta area for at least the next six months.

Even if a limited amount of rice is planted this year, the quality and yield is likely to be severely reduced, experts say. "We can certainly count on very meager crops for an indefinite future. The next two harvests will be greatly affected," said Turnell. "Before the cyclone this area was performing way below potential, mainly because of the regime's willful neglect and terrible policies towards agriculture."

Forced rehabilitation

Now there is a risk the military regime aggravates the humanitarian and economic crisis by forcing farmers prematurely back onto their land. UN officials warned the government on Friday that the forced resettlement of thousands of victims could launch a second wave of deaths, through disease outbreaks and deprivation in areas that lack proper drinking water and food supplies.

Myanmar-based aid workers and relief volunteers who had worked in the delta areas in recent weeks doubt that many rice farmers will be able to plant their monsoon crops on time - despite the government's forced resettlement policies.

"They are more concerned about surviving and getting food for their families than returning to their farms," said a Thai volunteer, who has just spent a week in the worst-affected areas of the delta. "Everywhere outside the towns, the fields and waterways were full of rotting animal carcasses and bloated bodies."

Other food sectors have similarly been affected, including the crucial fishing industry, which was largely based in the delta area. More than half of the fishing industry has been wiped out by the cyclone, according to a government official in the Agriculture Ministry. More than 20,000 fishermen are reportedly dead and another 6,000 are missing in the delta, he estimated.
Most of the country's fishing fleet has been destroyed or is missing, according to local government officials. There were an estimated 26,000 small- and 2,000 medium-sized fishing vessels that operated off-shore before the cyclone hit, according to official statistics. Meanwhile thousands of fish ponds, which helped supplement farmers' food and incomes, have also been rendered useless by the salt water.

Many of the shrimp and prawn farms near Yangon and in the Irrawaddy Delta have been destroyed or badly damaged by the cyclone, a businessman involved in the export of prawns to Thailand said on condition of anonymity. "The cyclone is likely to have reduced this to a fraction of last year's output and will severely dent the country's export trade," said the Burmese fisheries exporter.

Marine fisheries in the area produce more than half of the country's fish supply, while coastal aquaculture, including shrimp, crab and grouper farms, accounts for nearly 20% of production. Both of these sectors generated significant export earnings in recent years and represented one of the few viable growth industries in the country.

The Myanmar government on May 25 requested US$11.7 billion from international donors for purposes of reconstruction and rehabilitation. So far, it's not clear the international community is willing to foot that huge bill. The junta's request included an estimated $243 million to restore the rice industry and an additional $25 million to replace livestock production. The rehabilitation bill for the fishing industry, if fully restored, will be much higher, experts say.

All told, the economic impact of the cyclone disaster could prove to be even more devastating than the loss of lives, officially estimated now at around 133,000, though some estimate that figure much higher. The cyclone will compound the country's already deep economic woes and put further pressure on government coffers.

"Imports of basic commodities and foodstuffs, all at very high international prices, will certainly increase and exports will fall dramatically, especially from the fisheries sector, putting increased pressure on the country's foreign exchange reserves," said Turnell.

While energy exports, including to Thailand, India and China, are expected to be unaffected by the cyclone disaster, the revenues they previously provided for government coffers will in future be swallowed up by the cost of rehabilitation-related imports, he said. Expensive imports will inevitably add inflationary pressures to a dire humanitarian crisis, raising the economic risk of more human suffering in the months ahead.

Larry Jagan previously covered Myanmar politics for the British Broadcasting Corp. He is currently a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. June 3, 2008)