YANGON (Myanmar Now) – Floods caused by heavy rainfall have inundated 1 million acres of cropland across Myanmar, a majority of them paddy fields, leading the country’s rice traders to call for a halt in rice exports over fears of a rise in food prices, as authorities struggle to respond to the worst natural disaster since Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
The floods, coming some three months before landmark elections scheduled for Nov. 8, have so far damaged more than 440,000 acres of crops, mostly in Bago Region, Rakhine State, Sagaing Region and Ayeyarwaddy Region, according to an announcement by the Ministry of Agriculture on Aug. 5.
Of the 1.1 million acre of cropland that has been submerged, 80 percent are paddy fields, Thiha Tun, a deputy director at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, told Myanmar Now.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme said on Wednesday that 208,000 people in seven states and regions are in need of immediate of assistance because they have lost food stocks.
“This is an emergency situation, so we are trying to stop the export of rice temporarily. We have already submitted the request to the Ministry of Commerce,” Aung Myint, treasurer for the Myanmar Rice Federation and secretary of Myanmar Rice Traders association, told Myanmar Now in a phone interview.
“Not all submerged paddy fields may be destroyed, but what is certain is that the harvest would be delayed, in both Rakhine and Ayeyarwaddy,” he added
Last year, Myanmar exported 1.8 million metric tonnes of rice, while in 2013-2014 it exported about 1.3 million tonnes, according to Ye Min Aung, secretary of the Myanmar Rice Federation.
Rice prices have already increased in many places, but particularly in areas worst affected by floods.
“One pyi (2kg) of rice used to cost between 750 kyats ($0.60) to 900 kyats ($0.70), now it is 1,200 kyats ($1),” said Salai Om Har from Chin National Democratic Party, based in Chin State’s Min Tat city.
He said when the roads in Hakka, the state capital, were made impassable by rains, prices shot up more than fifteen-fold. Even then, the traders were not willing to sell.
Oo Hla Saw, a central executive committee member of Arakan National Party headquartered in Rakhine State, warned a food crisis looms large if international aid organisations do not step in.
“The hardest-hit towns in Rakhine State are the main source of paddy cultivation. Now all the rice storehouses in these towns have been destroyed. So have all the cropland there,” he told Myanmar Now.
“There will be no rice in the usual harvest seasons of November and October. The central government must start a major rehabilitation program to prevent (food crisis).
Myanmar’s government has declared four states and regions, including Chin and Rakhine states, as disaster zones after a cyclone that made landfall in neighbouring Bangladesh on July 30 compounded flash floods caused by heavier-than-usual monsoon rains.
The official toll of 69 dead and missing is expected to rise further as aid reaches more remote areas in the coming days. Close to 260,000 people are affected, the government said.
In May 2008, Myanmar’s then-ruling junta came under fire for its slow response to the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis and reluctance to accept international humanitarian aid. An estimated 140,000 people died.
Myanmar’s nominally civilian government, which came to power in 2011, has embarked on humanitarian relief efforts and called for international aid assistance, while it has been sensitive to mounting criticism in the press and social media.
Senior officials warned on their Facebook pages on Aug. 3 that anyone found spreading “false news relating to natural disaster with the intention of frightening people” could be prosecuted and would face up to a year in jail or a fine.
FOOD SECURITY CONCERNS
Experts say it is currently unclear what percentage of the submerged paddy fields would be destroyed.
“If the farmers planted deepwater rice varieties, which are able to tolerate flooded conditions to an extent, there would be a recovery. Still, you could lose them if you cannot give them nutrition. But if the paddy variety is not location-appropriate and/or unable to survive past a certain period, there could be pest and disease infestations,” said Ohnmar Khaing, coordinator for the Myanmar Food Security Working Group (FSWG), a network of organisations working on food security and livelihood issues.
“We cannot know exactly how much we are going to lose but this is definitely a very worrisome situation,” she added.
Ei, a 45-year-old food vendor in a busy street in downtown Yangon, said she is already feeling the pinch of higher rice prices.
“The prices went up on August 3, from 1,800 kyats to 2,200 kyats per pyi (2kg) so I have to charge my customers 100 kyats more per plate of rice. These price hikes affect working class people like us more,” she told Myanmar Now, while taking a break from preparing lunch for customers in her makeshift shop.
FSWG’s Ohnmar Khaing said there are concerns over the floodwaters reaching the Ayeyarwaddy Delta region, known as the rice bowl of Myanmar, as the water moves south in the coming days
“Some 60 to 70 percent of rice comes from Ayeyarwaddy. During the British era, there were drainage facilities in the delta but they are no longer there because of modern fish farms and construction of buildings. Our worry is that if there is nowhere for the water to go, those places will go underwater,” she said.
Khin Ni Ni Thein, secretary of the Water Advisory Group at the National Water Resources Committee, said high deforestation rates in Myanmar contributed to the flooding disaster.
“When you cut down forests, the land is laid bare so the water carries off the soil when it rains. The erosion of the fertile top soil increases and silt ends up in the river. This causes sandbanks [in the river] and hampers the water flow and causes water to overflow,” she said.
She added that there is an urgent need for water purification tablets since people in flooded areas no longer have access to clean water because wells have been contaminated with flood water.
“There were about 6 million water purification tablets imported during Nargis. We now need to import these tablets quickly. And once the water level goes down, the government should evaluate the maintenance of dams. The dams are able to hold less water than they should. What are we going to do about silt in the dam reservoirs? How do we dredge sandbanks in the river so there is a good flow of water?”
DEATH TOLL HIGH IN RAKHINE
In Rakhine State, seven townships have been inundated with flood waters in the aftermath of heavy rains and a storm, according to officials and locals.
As of Aug. 3, 35 people have been confirmed dead and close to 19,000 people are displaced in temporary shelters across the region, Hla Thein, a spokesman for the Rakhine regional government, told Myanmar Now. On Aug. 5, the number has increased to 41, according to a news report from AFP.
Flood-affected communities include previously displaced people in Rakhine State, the U.N. said. Over 130,000 people, a huge majority of whom are stateless Rohingya Muslims, remain displaced as a result of the inter-communal violence that erupted in 2012.
Extreme weather cut off large areas for a week after the heavy rains started, with “no possibility” for authorities to even reach a temporary shelter if it is located more than some 35 km (20 miles) away from an administrative office, Hla Thein said.
“We can’t access these areas either by boat or by cars. But since August 1, we are sending food there by plane,” he said.
“All the transport routes have completely broken down. The wind was too strong to use boats and the land routes have been covered by water as high as three feet (1 meter),” he added.
In the ancient city of Mrauk-U and coastal towns of Minbyar and Kyauktaw, the tide waters reached rooftops, and the roads and bridges connecting these coastal areas to the interior have been destroyed, said Oo Hla Saw, a central executive committee member of Arakan National Party.
“The market in Mrauk-U is underwater. Many people had to run up the hills to save their lives. People in the affected towns have no drinking water and food. We all desperately need water, rice and firewood. But the scope of the disaster is so huge that the government’s relief efforts are not effective,” he said.
Source: Myanmar Now