Food crisis ‘worsening’ in central Burma

Shortages of food that stem from a three-year drought in central Burma may be getting worse, according to the outgoing country director for the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Rainfall in Burma’s central Dry Zone has been scarce in recent years, and in May the region suffered an unprecedented heatwave, with temperatures reaching 47C in some parts. It was preceded by severe water shortages that swept across Burma, leaving river levels low and freshwater wells empty.

Chris Kaye told AlertNet on Tuesday that the food shortage is “a slow-burn problem but evidence would suggest it is getting worse”.

“Firstly rains were delayed. Then rains did begin to kick in and farmers started the planting. Since then there’s been a break and now that first set of inputs into the ground is withering and dying.”

While annual rainfall in Burma’s southern Irrawaddy delta region averages nearly 100 inches, in the Dry Zone it is closer to 40 inches. Famine is not restricted to this area: Chin state in the northwest has long suffered a major food shortage, largely due to mass infestations of rats in rural areas that feed on crops.

Kaye added that there was adequate food in the country but that “it’s not getting to the right places”. The Burmese government places tight restrictions on the flow of aid around the country, and was roundly condemned in May 2008 after it initially rejected offers of overseas aid following the devastating cyclone Nargis.

The WFP is also limited in terms of the scope of its work, with staff able to visit only a handful of areas permitted by the government. As a result, Kaye said, it has had to rely on smaller nutritional surveys which have provided evidence of worrying rates of malnourishment.

Rice is the staple food in Burma and provides for much of the country’s export sector, although production was hit hard by the cyclone two years ago. Around 1.75 million hectares, or 30 percent of the country’s wet season rice area, was destroyed.

Last month, figures released by the government’s Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) showed that rice exports had fallen 60 percent: traders said that stocks of rice were abundant, but administrative failures by the government were preventing their sale.

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