Drought Not the Only Culprit in Crop Crisis, Experts Say

Stricken by the country’s worst drought in a decade, 40 Kom­pong Speu province families from a village founded by and named for King Norodom Sihanouk came to Phnom Penh Thursday to ask their monarch for help.

As they try to get a sense of the drought’s damage, some authorities say this group may only be the vanguard of millions facing a severe food crisis.

“We came here to ask for help from the King because our village was built by the King,” Samdech Ov village farmer Pach Chan Thorn, 41, said Thursday.

South and southeastern Cam­bo­­dia were hit hardest by drought this year. Authorities estimate that this year’s dry spell was Cambodia’s worst since 1995. It decimated entire villages and may have wrought long-term havoc for the country’s food supply. The Kompong Speu villagers sagging in front of the palace Thursday said they have been wiped out.

“My village has had no rain since early this year and all the farm land has dried up,” said Pach Chan Thorn, who lost his left leg in an accident in 1985. “I sowed rice three times, but it has all died. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Teams from the aid groups CARE, Oxfam and Action Against Hunger have fanned out in the country this week for a “rapid assessment” of the damage to food supply, International Feder­ation of the Red Cross Head of Delegation Anthony Spalton said Thursday.

The teams’ report is expected next week and the National Com­mittee for Disaster Manage­ment is scheduled to chair a meeting of aid groups late this month or early next month to discuss how to handle the results, Spalton said.

Some government officials have already put out estimates of the food damage. About 2 million people have been affected by the drought; half of them could run out of food by the end of the month, National Committee for Disaster Management adviser Ross Sovan said.

Authorities estimate that the country needs more than 2,000 tons of rice right away to help drought victims, committee Sec­retary General Peou Samy said.

If there is a food crisis, it may be hard to determine how much of it is owed directly to the drought, Spalton said. The last three years of floods have been felt far beyond their own time, since people lose not only food rice, but seed rice, Spalton said.

“The margins to cope have been reduced. People have less and less every year. The coping mechanisms have been eroded,” he said.

Whatever the outcome of those studies, there is one issue that should not be lost, Spalton said.

“It’s an issue of poverty. Yes, it’s been a bad year for floods and droughts, but this is the same situation all around the world where people have been pushed onto marginal lands,” he said.

The natural cycle of floods and droughts can only make themselves felt so drastically because the cycle of poverty leads desperate people to bad lands where the crop yields are already low to nothing, Spalton said.

There are 73 families in Sam­dech Ov village. The 33 families left behind didn’t have enough money to come to the capital. Some of those who had come to Phnom Penh had spent their last scraps of money to do so, villagers said.

“I had only 2,000 riel (about $0.50), but I used it all to pay for a ride here,” farmer Hong Saroeun, 35, said.

It was not clear what the families’ next step would be—except to wait for help, the villagers said.

“If I don’t get help from the King, maybe I’ll just walk home,” Hong Saroeun said.

A police guard appeared early on Thursday to take all of their names on a piece of paper, villagers said.

“I will sit here until I receive news from the King or someone who works inside,” Pach Chan Thorn said. “And I don’t know what will happen next year, because I don’t have any rice for next year.”


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