Food aid cut as crops fail in Irrawaddy delta

Sea-level farmlands like these have not recovered from Cyclone Nargis

A week ago the United Nations humanitarian news agency ran a telling interview with a survivor of Cyclone Nargis, the storm that devastated Burma in May.

The interviewee, a 62-year-old farmer whose daughter-in-law and granddaughter were killed in the cyclone, said that although after the disaster some monks gave her paddy seed with which to replant her fields, the crop has failed.

“Even with fertilizer, the plants simply didn’t take or died,” Aye Yin told a reporter from the IRIN news service. “Some say it’s because of the salt water that inundated much of our fields. I don’t know. In any case, it doesn’t matter now.”

To get a little income, her grandson now collects empty water bottles from the streets and sells them to recyclers. The family has also received some assistance from the World Food Programme, but Aye Yin says that it isn’t enough.

“Now all we worry about is how we will survive the coming months,” she said. “I pray we won’t starve to death.”

She is going to have to pray harder. In November, the WFP is set to scale back its work in Burma’s delta, from general to “targeted” distributing of rice.

What this means for the region’s occupants is that over a quarter of a million people will soon find that they are no longer entitled to assistance. Another half million or so especially vulnerable people, or those joining food-for-work activities, will continue to receive something for a while longer.

U.N. agencies are putting on a brave face. A WFP spokesperson told the Voice of America that there is more work and food in the delta than before. Another with the Food and Agriculture Organization said recently that 97 percent of the paddy fields in affected areas had been successfully replanted.

These persons are doing their best to make it look like everything is going according to plan, but clearly it is not. Or rather, not according to their plan.

The delivery of rice and other things to people in the delta depends upon the whimsy of Burma’s top generals. It is they, not international bureaucrats, who have decided that the supply of food is to be cut.

Aid workers may in recent months have been getting along better with regional and local authorities than in the first weeks after the cyclone, but those officials have no say in what goes on. The men that matter are in Naypyidaw, Burma’s capital.

The WFP had intended to continue with general distributions until next May, a full year after the tragedy. This is much longer than most of its relief responses, acknowledging both the sheer scale of the disaster, in which an estimated 150,000 people died, and also the inability of what is effectively a subsistence economy to recover on its own.

But an order from above has put a stop to these well-laid plans, just as in July the government abruptly stopped the group from buying rice locally, obliging it to revert to imports from Thailand and India.

While for U.N. staff this sort of arbitrary decision making “poses a challenge,” for Aye Yin it is a threat to life. The elderly farmer, who from decades of hard experience understands military dictatorship far better than they, isn’t putting any stock in their work. She just hopes that the monks come back soon.

Unfortunately there’s no guarantee of that either. The remarkable efforts of both monasteries and countless members of the general public to help survivors in the weeks following the storm embarrassed a regime that insists upon taking credit for any amount of largesse delivered under its watch, no matter how large or small.

So while avenues were opened for some foreign aid groups in June, at the same time, for many local donors they were closed. Monks bringing help from other parts of the country, like those who met Aye Yin, have been blocked from travelling again; not at checkpoints, but through warnings issued by councils in their hometowns. And outspoken well-wishers like renowned comedian Zarganar have been arrested and charged with spreading “false news” about the disaster.

Whether the monks find the ways and means to return once the WFP disappears is yet to be seen, but in any event neither Aye Yin nor anyone else in her village will be fooled by nonsense about successfully replanted fields and a quick return of jobs and food. Nor should anyone else be.

“My son and I are now dependent on an eight-year-old boy,” Aye Yin remarked of her grandson, out collecting plastic bottles. “If he were in school, he would be in the third grade, but we have failed him.”

And we have failed her.

Source: Food aid cut as crops fail in Irrawaddy delta

See also: Cyclone survivors fear food aid is set to end soon (The Irrawaddy)


2 responses to “Food aid cut as crops fail in Irrawaddy delta

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Myanmar: Crop failure in cyclone-hit areas

  2. Regime Still Impeding Relief Efforts
    By WILLIAM BOOT Monday, October 20, 2008, The Irrawaddy

    Six months after Cyclone Nargis swept into Burma, the people and agriculture of the devastated Irrawaddy delta region are suffering from a combination of inadequate international aid supplies and military junta meddling.

    Burma’s ruling regime is bungling recovery efforts by insisting on controlling aid and relief workers, while the international response to United Nations’ appeals for funding has been lukewarm.

    Only 50 percent of the US $480 million sought by the UN has been contributed, the organization admitted as The Irrawaddy went to press.

    Some critics see a direct link between the two problems. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) alleges that the junta’s insistence on controlling all activities in the delta recovery zones has deterred many donors from contributing.

    Obsessive control over relief and harassment of local people working with foreign humanitarian aid staff are problems cited by the NLD, which also says this was deterring private donors.

    At the beginning of October, the military government arrested a key figure in the NLD’s own cyclone relief committee, Ohn Kyaing. The former journalist and elected Member of Parliament had previously spent 15 years in prison, until his release in 2005, for writing what the regime termed seditious pamphlets.

    Relief coordinators from the Tripartite Core Group (TCG)—consisting of representatives of the UN, the Burmese government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)—have put on a brave face, saying that much has been achieved in recent months.

    The TCG says that since Nargis, more than 33,000 metric tons of food have been distributed to over 733,000 people, and outbreaks of waterborne diseases and dengue have been prevented.

    But there are signs that the TCG might not be all singing from same song sheet.

    Burmese Agriculture Minister Maj-Gen Htay Oo has given an upbeat assessment, claiming that cyclone damage to the delta’s farmland has been almost completely repaired, with 97 percent of Burma’s afflicted paddy fields replanted.

    Speaking at the end of September, the UN’s resident coordinator in Burma, Bishow Parajuli, painted a very different picture of the progress of relief efforts in the delta.

    “People and communities have been severely affected. It will take a long time until the needs are met,” Parajuli said, adding that “agriculture and early recovery continue to be the least funded sectors.”

    Although the TCG says over 700,000 Nargis victims have been aided, it also notes that the total population affected is about 2.4 million.

    “The TCG continues to foster cooperation and serve as a mechanism to resolve issues affecting efficient aid delivery, such as access,” the group said in a statement released in October.

    The reference to access issues would seem to confirm the view of those who say that the Burmese military is continuing to impede the flow of relief supplies, equipment and aid workers by insisting on micromanaging everything.

    There have been reports that Burmese army units have coerced cyclone victims to work on reconstruction projects, including road building in Laputta Township, in return for internationally donated aid packages.

    Meanwhile, the impact of the storm and the slow recovery in the delta is likely to have far-reaching economic effects beyond the immediately affected area.

    Observers say 60 percent of Burma’s delta salt industry was destroyed by the cyclone, and this has so far shown little signs of recovery. Wholesale salt prices in Rangoon have risen 300 percent since May.

    Ironically, large-scale salination of paddy fields from seawater flooding during the cyclone continues to hinder rice production.

    Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute, called in to advise on ways of rejuvenating production, said rice growing was 25 percent down in the worst-damaged areas due to shortages of labor, infrastructure, equipment and draft animals.

    The institute has warned of the risk of salinity recurring in apparently cleared soil during the dry season and urges the introduction of salt-tolerant rice varieties, according to a report in the online magazine, ScienceDaily.

    While serious concerns about the prospects for a full recovery remain, however, the junta appears to have other priorities. According to the Washington-based human rights NGO EarthRights International, Burma’s military regime is more concerned with carving up the country for resource exploitation than with the reconstruction of the Irrawaddy delta.

    “The junta has demonstrated over time a fundamental interest to secure billions of dollars in revenue from natural resources at the expense of the environment and human rights—this is revenue that the people and the agricultural sector are unlikely to see or benefit from,” said ERI’s Matthew F. Smith in Thailand.

    The shortfall in donations sought by the UN follows disclosures that the Burmese regime forces aid cash to be converted into the local kyat currency at a very poor exchange rate.

    The UN admitted in July that it was losing about 20 percent of internationally donated cyclone cash converted via Foreign Exchange Certificates with the junta-controlled Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank.

    This totaled about $10 million, UN official John Holmes admitted at the time, describing it as a “very serious loss.”

    Other UN officials in New York subsequently tried to play down the loss, suggesting it was only 5 percent, although this was never explained.

    However, at the end of September, corruption whistle-blowing NGO Inner City Press in New York quoted 1997 Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams as saying she had been told by an unidentified Asean official during a recent tour of Southeast Asia that the cash conversion loss in Burma was 25 percent.

    This does not seem to concern the TCP, however, despite the sluggish response to the funding appeal.

    “The Tripartite Core Group was created as a compromise when the junta would only countenance direct foreign aid worker involvement in post cyclone assistance if it was done via the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which it is a member,” said one official at the embassy of a Western donor nation in Bangkok, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject.

    “The TCG is a typical Asean acronym that often amounts to nothing much, and unfortunately in this case it enables the Burmese authorities to keep a tight oversight of what happens with foreign aid in the delta. This is doubtless contributing to the donor aid shortfall.”

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