Myanmar’s Rice Crop Takes a Hit After Cyclone

When Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar, also known as Burma, on May 2 and 3, a 12-foot wall of saltwater and heavy rains soaked the low-lying delta region, which produces about a third of the country’s rice, and wiped out many other rice fields and food stores.

In addition to the devastating human death toll, which surpassed 84,000 by official government count, was the loss of about 100,000 cattle and water buffalo used to plow rice fields.

The saturated rice fields, loss of draft animals and short seed supplies combined to paint a bleak picture as the country’s main rice planting period, which runs from June to late July, approached.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s June 10 assessment predicted the country’s 2008-09 rice crop will be 9.4 million tons — a 12 percent drop from last year. The USDA, which monitors international food production for commodity trade purposes, also estimated that about 1 million tons of rice harvested last year were lost in the storm and flooding.

But the Myanmar government refuted assertions that the country was in dire straits.

“Some organizations were spreading groundless information such as there is or will be a shortage of rice in Myanmar,” National Planning Minister Soe Tha was quoted as saying at a meeting with international relief agencies in June, according to Reuters. “We have enough rice and we can distribute sufficiently.”

Michael Shean, the USDA international crop assessment analyst for Southeast Asia and the Middle East, said obstacles to the first planting of the year, including the damaged farmlands and livestock deaths, are real. “If they pull off a miracle, they will have little loss of rice production,” he said.

A second rice crop will be planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. And an on-the-ground assessment planned for mid-August will give the agency a better picture of what lies ahead, he added.

On May 25, the Myanmar government, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations formed a Tripartite Core Group to compile the needs of the areas damaged by the cyclone. That data was used as the basis for a fundraising appeal of $482 million, including $51 million for agriculture needs. About $178 million of the total appeal has been committed so far.

The TCG also sped up the process of issuing visas to foreign aid workers — a major hurdle to distributing relief supplies in the country shortly after the cyclone hit.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, some areas of the Irrawaddy delta are suitable for growing rice plants, but other parts are being monitored for salt content from the wall of water that reportedly penetrated about 25 to 30 miles inland along the storm’s track.

To help compensate for the loss of draft animals used to till the rice fields, Thailand, China and other countries provided about 5,000 mechanical tillers, and U.N. Undersecretary-General Noeleen Heyzer urged donors to supply 1 million gallons of diesel fuel for the machines.

The FAO also purchased 600 water buffalo from lesser-hit areas of Myanmar to donate to the hard-hit areas, while another 1,400 cattle and water buffalo were donated domestically, according to local reports.

Aid agencies also are helping distribute high-yield and local varieties of seed, but warn that short-term fixes will not address the longer-term needs of the country’s recovery, nor the economic toll of rising global food prices.