Food shortages are slamming several of the country’s most impoverished districts, driving thousands of people toward starvation in the run-up to next year’s harvest, government officials said Tuesday.
Poor rice yields from last year now are running low and sending masses of young people to Phnom Penh, provincial capitals and the country’s borders in search of income to sustain their families, they said.
Kompong Thom province, which has suffered chronic rice shortages in recent years, is again seeking help from NGOs, the Cambodian Red Cross and the government to get through a difficult season, said Pho Kim Hun, deputy governor of Stung district.
He reported that villagers in his district, one of the hardest hit by rice shortages, are collecting white cassava, potato roots and small fish for subsistence, in spite of some 1,000 tons of rice donated through the UN’s World Food Program and other agencies.
About 60 percent of the district’s 100,000 people are short on food, he said.
“At this stage of the season, most of the farmers have almost completely run out of rice stock collected from last year’s harvest,” Pho Kim Hun said.
In February, the WFP unveiled a scam in which officials stole and sold for profit large quantities of rice meant for distribution. Earlier this month, Ramaraj Saravanamutti, the WFP’s deputy country director said the agency was working with the government to determine which officials were responsible for the more than a million dollars worth of aid that was lost.
Calls made to Saravanamutti were unsuccessful Tuesday.
According to a report from the National Committee for Disaster Management, 14,716 families across Kompong Thom are running out of rice.
Failing rice stocks also are hurting villagers in Oddar Meanchey province, provincial officials said.
More than 1,600 villagers there are struggling to get enough food, said first deputy governor Mao Tim.
“A lot of our farmers are starving, but we manage to help them some,” he said. Poor roads and Oddar Meanchey’s isolation have exacerbated the shortages, he added.
As in Kompong Thom, much of the younger men in the province had migrated from their cities in search of work, especially in the border casinos.
Lower-than-expected rainfall last year is widely blamed for the current shortages.
Nhim Vanda, vice president of the Committee for Disaster Management, said that in addition to shortages in Kompong Thom and Oddar Meanchey, he was concerned about poor rice yields in the provinces of Prey Veng, Takeo and Kompong Speu. A full assessment by the committee is due next month, he said.
However, he downplayed the seasonal hunger pangs as a routine hardship.
“Cambodian people never die from not having rice to eat. When they are starving, they get a loan of rice from their neighbor or they pawn their property to the other in order to afford food to eat,” he said.
Em Phean, director of Kompong Thom’s office of agriculture, said villagers will turn to growing vegetables, hunting and scouring the forests for edible flora in order to survive the season.
“The farmers have run out of rice in their rice stocks, but the people will catch fish and harvest vegetables to sell for money so they can have rice to eat from one day to another,” he said.