Cambodia will most likely register a slight rice surplus this year, but agricultural techniques and distribution need to be improved to reduce a “very serious” nutritional problem, according to a new joint report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program.
Total paddy production for 1998-1999 is projected at 3.52 million tons, 3 percent higher than last year, although due to low river and reservoir levels, the dry season crop is not expected to fare well. A small surplus of about 30,000 tons can be expected in 1999 based on rice use, according to the report.
However, this surplus does not mean more food for everyone. Data on rice production and food security reveal gross inequalities in rice production from commune to commune and in individual households’ access to rice.
According to the report, less than 25 percent of rice-growing communes representing approximately 15 percent of the population produce 75 percent of the national surplus.
And the report lists that as a result of low food consumption at the household level, 56 percent of children are undersized..
Dr Sophie Biays, deputy chief medical program officer for Medecins San Frontieres, said Monday while she could not statistically say how large a problem malnutrition is in Cambodia, the symptoms of it are common in the children of villages she visits.
“If you go in any village, you see children who are malnourished,” she said. “All the children, if you ask their age, they are smaller than normal.”
An earlier WFP/Unicef joint survey of 124 villages in 13 provinces released at the end of 1998 called malnutrition in Cambodia a “silent emergency.”
The survey found 80 percent of children suffer from anemia and that malnutrition is an underlying cause for an estimated 77 percent of child deaths under five years.
Land productivity is hampered by a host of problems.
Apart from natural disasters, war-related constraints such as displacement of farmers, land mines, abandoned fields, continuing insecurity and a rudimentary, dilapidated transportation system have all held down productivity of arable land, the report said.
The subsistence nature of Cambodian agriculture is another inhibiting factor, the report said. Other problems include limited utilization of crop varieties and fertilizers, lack of mechanization and lack of irrigation facilities.
Furthermore, aggravating food insecurity among rural dwellers is indebtedness arising from farmers needing to repay loans against their current crop. The report estimated an average of 30.2 percent of families were in debt for daily needs for more than three months of last year.
Ly Thuch, secretary of state for the Ministry of Rural Development, acknowledged poverty and a major symptom, malnutrition in children, are serious. “Between 1993 and 1997, we reduced poverty by only 3 percent, a very modest amount,” he said. “We are in a very critical situation toward poverty affecting rural people, and we need attention especially from national leadership.”
However, with assistance from international agencies such as WFP, his ministry has identified vulnerable communes for aid programs, and is in the process of targeting individual households.
And Prime Minister Hun Sen was very supportive of rural development programs when he, along with representatives from the WFP and FAO, met the prime minister on Feb 1 for a two-hour discussion, Ly Thuch said.
On Hun Sen’s recommendation, the ministry is helping organize an international conference on food insecurity and problems with food distribution, set for April at the Royal University of Agriculture, he said.