Farmers clear clear grass and debris from their flooded paddy fields (Photo by Daniel Wynn)
Waist deep in water, a group of farmers carries bundles of grass and refuse to a nearby road in the Irrawaddy Delta as they clear fields inundated by recent flooding in preparation for the next cycle of crop planting. Though flood waters have receded in most areas of the delta, farmers in Kyaunggon – a few hours’ drive from Yangon – are still surrounded by water that remains as high as three meters in some areas. More than 136,000 acres of farmland were destroyed by heavy monsoon rains that began in early August, according to official estimates. The coming harvest season, which begins next month, will bring crushing debt this year instead of profit. Farmers say so far they have received little help from the government. “Over there are my paddy fields, still under water,” said Myint Than, 58, who lost 20 acres of crops. He says a typical harvest season brings about US$60 an acre in profit. This season his family will have to survive on handouts from the UN World Food Program and local NGOs. Htway Kyi, another farmer from Kyaunggon, says he must travel to and from his paddy fields in a small wooden boat. He and others are not encouraged by the response of Myanmar’s new civilian government, he says. The lack of support has reminded many of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, in which the government said 138,000 were killed, though independent estimates put the figure at more than 350,000. “The government leaders including President Thein Sein came here to see the situation, but we have received little support so far. We now need paddy seeds and farming equipment that was lost in the floods,” Htway Kyi said. Despite criticism of the government response to recent flooding, farmers do acknowledge that the UN and other aid groups have been granted unfettered access to the area for disaster relief – something they are quick to note was denied in 2008, when the military blocked such groups from providing aid after Nargis. Extreme weather and flooding in recent years in Myanmar has been blamed by some on poor infrastructure and environmental degradation. Dr. Ohn Mar Khaing, an agronomist and national coordinator at the Food and Security Working Group in Myanmar, says poor government management of drainage systems in the delta has contributed to the recent severe flooding, which has further damaged an already fragile ecosystem. She estimates food security will likely remain manageable because the area affected by flooding remains relatively small. Also, local and international food assistance is now available when in past years it was not. The Myanmar Rice Industry Association says despite this year’s lost crops, the country stands to see a resurgence in rice production and exports, with an estimated two million tons sent abroad this year and three million tons slated for next year. The country has about 15 million acres of paddy fields and was the top exporter of rice in Southeast Asia until a 1962 military coup brought the first of successive military regimes to power.