A spike in food prices last year increased the number of food insecure Cambodians by more than 50 percent to 2.8 million people during the annual “lean season,” and now the global economic crisis threatens to push even more people into hunger this year, the UN’s World Food Program country director said Thursday.
In 2007, from July to November—the period when Cambodian household food stocks traditionally run low—the number of food insecure individuals in Cambodia stood at about 1.7 million people, WFP Country Director Jean-Pierre de Margerie said in an interview. That number jumped to about 2.8 million people during the same period in 2008 as a result of high food prices. That calculates to an increase of about 64 percent.
“Looking at the current trends and aggravating factors, the number of food insecure people could top 2.8 million during the upcoming lean season,” Mr de Margerie said.
Food insecurity—which Mr de Margerie said is essentially interchangeable with the word “hun-
ger”—rose most sharply last year in the provinces of the Tonle Sap Basin, he said. He added that the possibilities for poor households to cope with the “back-to-back” shocks of the soaring food prices and the global economic crisis were being exhausted.
This year, he said, there is a serious threat of households resorting to drastic measures such as selling their land, pulling their children out of school, or selling productive assets, which could push them into poverty for years to come.
“We think some of the poorest households are reaching this point,” Mr de Margerie said.
A WFP study completed in November found that families in the 2008 lean season were resorting to “very damaging,” unsustainable actions to cope with high food prices: 98 percent were forced to acquire new debts and 50 percent reduced their food consumption.
Mothers and children, and vulnerable groups such as landless families and small or female-headed households were most at risk of rising levels of hunger, Mr de Margerie said.
Mr Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the WFP figures on people becoming food insecure during last year’s lean season were based on the organization’s definitions, and he could not comment on them for this reason.
“How do they define hungry? That’s the question,” he said. The Ministry of Agriculture is in charge of food production, and the Agri-
culture Ministry had said that last year’s harvest had been good, Mr Phay Siphan said.
The soaring food prices last year was due to manipulation by rice traders and the government would not let this happen again, he added. “The government can control de-
mand and supply,” he said, adding: “We have a well-stocked rice supply.”
Mr Phay Siphan said the government was also planning ahead for the upcoming lean season and was extending additional support, such as loans, to the agriculture sector via the Rural Development Bank.
“The government has a relief mechanism to solve these [food security] problems,” he added, before referring further questions to the National Committee for Disaster Management and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Secretary of State of the Ministry of Agriculture Chan Tong Yves said his ministry was researching poverty levels in rural areas. Therefore, he did not know what the level of hunger was, nor could he comment on the WFP figures.
He added the ministry was undertaking support programs for farmers, but he declined to explain in detail which programs were being conducted.
First vice-chairman of the National Committee for Disaster Management, Nhim Vanda,
and second vice-chairman Ly Tuch could not be reached for comment.
Mr de Margerie said WFP, the government and other development organizations were working hard to put support programs into place to help prevent more people from falling into hunger as well as to keep Cambodia’s poorest from reaching a point where they resort to drastic measures like pulling their children out of school.
“We have to monitor this situation and detect as quickly as possible those that will reach these critical levels of food insecurity,” he said.
WFP might have to intervene through the scaling-up or expansion of its programs or creating new schemes if needed, he said-possibly extending the scope of its support from 1 million to 1.5 million people within months.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)