In the late 1930s, Myanmar was the world’s largest rice exporter, sending 3.3 million metric tonnes (MT) a year from the fertile Irrawaddy delta to foreign markets, mainly neighbouring India.
In recent decades, however, despite vast tracts of land and abundant water, the country has only just managed to produce enough to feed itself – its output depressed by agricultural restrictions that gave farmers little incentive to invest in boosting yields.
The havoc wrought by Cyclone Nargis - and the massive sea surge in its wake - on Myanmar’s most important rice-growing area has raised new fears about the country’s food security and potential pressure on global rice prices.
UN agencies and rice traders are warning that Myanmar may not be able to meet its own rice needs through domestic production. Moreover, it may require imports at a time when global rice prices are at an unprecedented high.
Already, rice prices in Yangon, the largest city and former capital, and elsewhere have jumped by 50 percent, residents say. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned on 12 May that the cyclone may “sharply decrease national rice production and impair access to food”.
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“I think the overall projection is of incredible hardship,” said Sean Turnell, a Macquarie University expert on Myanmar and editor of Burma Economic Watch. “In the short term, we are going to see real shortages – and the price of rice is going to be very high.”
The Irrawaddy delta accounts for about 65 percent of Myanmar’s annual rice production.
Even before the cyclone, international rice specialists say production was far below its inherent potential, as farmers were too poor to invest in any basic inputs such as high-yielding seeds or fertiliser.
But the outlook is even worse now after the tidal wave created by the cyclone sent seawater surging an estimated 35-40km inland, killing tens of thousands of people in the region.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
|A map of Myanmar and surrounding countries highlighting the Irrawaddy delta, which accounts for about 65 percent of Myanmar’s annual rice production|
“The region was already under-performing, very much on the edge. Now, it’s just devastated,” said one Rangoon-based agricultural expert who has worked in the area.
Nargis struck just as the delta’s paddy farmers were harvesting the so-called “dry season” crop, which accounts for about 20-25 percent of annual production.
The storm’s ferocity destroyed several rice warehouses – and their stocks – the FAO reported, prompting one rice supplier to warn the UN World Food Programme (WFP) that it might not be able to provide rice already promised to the agency.
The catastrophe will have even greater consequences for the next paddy season, however.
It is unclear whether the shell-shocked cyclone survivors - many of whom lost family members and all their possessions - will be in any condition to engage in the gruelling labour of planting rice.
Many have also lost livestock, including buffaloes used for ploughing to prepare for planting.
“There is a question about the ability of the rice planters to get back to cultivation,” said Paul Risely, a WFP spokesman. “They’ve got to put their houses back together first.”
Photo: International Federation
|In Bogalay, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, about 95 per cent of the houses were destroyed. Up to 10,000 people are feared to have died in this town alone|
Race against time
Myanmar authorities are focusing on the need to revive rice farming quickly and holding talks with the FAO, as well as other NGOs.
According to the FAO, the government’s preliminary estimate of the cost of reviving the agricultural sector is US$243 million to procure seeds, fertilisers and repair long-neglected, colonial-era irrigation systems that were badly damaged in the storm, as well as to desalinise large swathes of land inundated with sea water. It also estimates another $20 million is needed to replace lost livestock.
Yet with planting due to begin in the coming weeks, authorities are in a race against time, one that some analysts suggest the country is unlikely to win, given the scale of the problem.
“The damage has been great,” said Turnell. “The next season is unlikely to be anything like a normal harvest,” he warned.