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Bangladesh Struggles to Cope with Shortage of Affordable Food Staples

Bangladesh is seeking three million tons of rice and wheat, in the next several months, to counter the lingering effects of a devastating cyclone amid soaring prices for staple foods. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman, in our South Asia bureau in New Delhi, reports Bangladesh is hoping purchases from India and donations from the United States will meet some of the pressing demand.

Bangladesh is confronting a double blow, as it attempts to feed its impoverished people. Damage from Cyclone Sidr, five months ago, has destroyed this year's staple food harvest. What is available is quickly becoming less affordable.

Government officials say they will need an additional three million tons of rice and wheat in the next three months. They say they hope to buy some of the rice from India, at $430 per ton, and sell it in the market below cost. That is expected to triple the amount of subsidized rice in government-run shops in the country.

There are reports that those who can afford rice in Bangladesh are hoarding it, worried about further price increases.

The United States is to donate 90,000 metric tons of food this year, worth nearly $70 million.

U.S. Agency for International Development Mission Director Denise Rollins says one third of that will go to those affected by the cyclone.

"The people who are most affected by the cyclone they typically have only one cropping season a year. And, that crop was ready to be harvested when the cyclone hit. So it was completely destroyed."

The American food aid will include wheat, yellow split peas and vegetable oil.

Rising food prices, which are affecting much of Asia this year, are particularly troublesome for the people of Bangladesh. Nearly half of the population lives on less than one dollar a day and spends most of its income on food.

USAID Bangladesh Mission Director Rollins says the situation has become even more critical for those hit by floods last July and August and last November's cyclone.

"There's no employment. There's no livelihoods that have returned. Most people are involved in agriculture. Without the farms operating now, because you don't have a crop in the field, it means people are unable to work and so, with rising prices for basic commodities, it means people are eating considerably less.

The combination of rocketing prices and unemployment has given rise to what Bangladesh's former finance secretary, Akbar Ali Khan, terms a "silent famine" in the country.

The United Nations last month urged the developed world to boost food and monetary aid to Bangladesh.