Burma Requests Farming Aid Before Rice-Planting Season

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
By Amy Kazmin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 16, 2008

BANGKOK, May 15 -- Burma's military government has appealed for international help in getting Irrawaddy Delta rice farmers back to their fields after Cyclone Nargis, as concerns grow about future food shortages if cultivators miss the upcoming planting season.

The request, conveyed to foreign aid officials in closed-door meetings in Burma, was being evaluated by the officials Thursday as emergency supplies continued to move into the disaster zone, though still in volumes far below what U.N. agencies say are needed. Medical experts warned of a possible outbreak of plague.

Burmese state television, meanwhile, reported overwhelming public support for a controversial military-sponsored constitution. According to the report, the first detailed look at the results of the referendum, more than 92 percent of voters endorsed the draft in polling a week after the cyclone.

Western countries and Burmese dissident groups have criticized the charter as merely creating a fa├žade of civilian and democratic institutions, while preserving military rule, adding that the referendum was far from free and fair, and that it distracted government attention from disaster relief.

But with concerns continuing for the welfare of up to 2.5 million cyclone survivors, many of them still awaiting aid, most international diplomacy is focused on pushing the Burmese junta to open its doors to greater outside assistance.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the delta's rice farmers -- many of whom lost all their rice seeds in the cyclone and the tidal surge that followed -- have less than two months to get back to cultivation.

"They are racing against the clock," said Diderik de Vleeschauwer, an FAO spokesman. "They have a window of roughly 40 to 50 days for seeding and planting, otherwise they will lose this planting season."

Burmese authorities have tentatively estimated that it will cost about $243 million to buy seeds and fertilizer, repair irrigation works, desalinate fields and clean out ponds to help revive rice farming in the delta, Burma's traditional rice basket. They also estimate that about $20 million of livestock was lost in the cyclone.

The FAO believes that about 1.7 million acres of rice fields -- or approximately 20 percent of the delta's total rice land -- needs rehabilitation. The agency has a team of international experts on the ground in the area to assess the situation.

Health experts issued new warnings about disease. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Lehman College in New York concluded in a report issued Wednesday that plague, typhoid and dysentery are increasing dangers, as well as leptospirosis, a potentially life-threatening illness caused by a bacterium.

"Plague is a particular concern," the report said, "since rodents who have survived the storm will also seek the same dry ground where people will gather, and rodents, fleas and displaced populations historically have led to epidemics of plague." The World Health Organization has also warned of an increased risk of plague in Burma.

In New York, a top U.N. official signaled that the world body's secretariat would press international lenders that have cut ties with Burma to reestablish contacts to help finance the repair of storm-damaged land and facilities.

"One of the big issues as we move towards . . . recovery of this area will be investment in infrastructure, in part agricultural and associated infrastructure," said John Holmes, the United Nations' chief relief coordinator. "That's where organizations like the World Bank, through their lending facilities, may be able to play a particular role."

Staff writers Colum Lynch in New York and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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