Gov’t Drought Efforts Falter, Hunger Looms

Drought has ruined about one-tenth of the country’s rice paddies despite urgent efforts to irrigate affected fields in the past week, government officials said Mon­day.

Last-ditch efforts to distribute and fuel irrigation pumps salvaged roughly 100,000 hectares of rice fields, officials said, but the remainder of the drought-stricken areas have been put on alert, with the government advising farmers to plant alternative crops and for the nation to eat less.

“In this poor situation, people ought to reduce their diet,” said Nhim Vanda, first vice president of the National Committee for Disaster Management.

“Stay economical with your rice diet…. Eat only at mealtimes,” said Nhim Vanda, adding that reducing one’s daily diet would make food supplies last longer, improve health and guard against diabetes, high blood pressure and stomach aches later in life.

Believed to be one of the worst in years, the drought has damaged an estimated 200,000 hect­ares in rice crops and set off a desperate rush for water in many parts of the country, officials said.

After a meeting of Agriculture Ministry officials on Monday, Minister Chan Sarun said irregular rainfall has hurt crops in about 11 percent of the area of Kompong Cham and Prey Veng provinces.

But hardest-hit could be Kompong Speu province, where about 50 percent of the rice crops—about 4,000 hectares—has been damaged. The province’s agriculture director said between 30,000 and 40,000 families already are going hungry.

“They are in need of emergency aid,” said Director Bin Sareth. He said this year’s drought was the worst he had seen in the province.

Since Prime Minister Hun Sen made a public appeal on Nov 9 for intervention, the government has distributed about 2,000 irrigation pumps, said Nhim Vanda. Roughly one-third of those pumps are from the premier’s personal intervention brigade, he said.

In the meantime, farmers are scouring the country for water, even tapping ponds at nearby pagodas, Chan Sarun said. Many monks have been forced to guard their water from farmers, he said.

“Monks fear their ponds will dry up, so they stop people from pumping them for irrigation. They say the lives of animals and human beings are more important than the lives of rice paddies,” Chan Sarun said.

Farmers should plant potatoes and vegetables heavy in calories to mitigate expected food shortages, he said. Several million potato buds have been distributed already, he added.

Chan Tong Yves, a secretary of state at the ministry and its chief agronomist, warned it was too early to assess the drought’s impact. For instance, rice crops that appear healthy in Kompong Cham might in fact fail.

“Those plants look healthy and green, but the soil is dry. So the soil may kill the plant,” he said.


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