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UN Warns Burma's Food Security at Risk


United Nations agencies warn that Burma's food shortages and escalating prices pose a threat to its food security. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, aid agencies also say Burma may need food assistance for at least a year to support communities devastated by Cyclone Nargis.

In its latest assessment, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization says hundreds of thousands of people in remote regions of the Irrawaddy Delta have yet to receive food aid, nearly a month after the cyclone. Up to 75 percent of the population most in need is not receiving regular food assistance.

Aid agencies estimate more than two million people need food, shelter and medical care as a result of Cyclone Nargis, which came ashore the night of May 2. The storm killed 78,000 people and left 56,000 missing.

The FAO says food shortages along with escalating prices "posed a risk to national security". Rice prices in Rangoon have doubled this month while prices of staples such as eggs had risen sharply.

The cyclone destroyed crops just before the main rice harvest. The loss is compounded by the deaths of 150,000 water buffalo, needed to plow paddies.

Paul Risley, the World Food Program's Asia spokesman, says Burma may need aid for a year.

"It's quiet clear that there will be needs for continued food assistance in all of these communities - not only over the next three months, (or) six months, but possibly until the next proper good harvest and that's going to be literally a year away," Risley said.

Aid agencies say a new crop of rice needs to be planted within weeks to avoid a prolonged food crisis. But Risley says it is unlikely the planting will be done.

"The last thing these farmers are prepared to do right now is to re-seed these fields and plow them and get them back into shape and plant the rice that needs to be planted within the three to four weeks, or we really risk seeing no harvest at all for the next year. And that's an incredibly dangerous situation," Risley said.

Debbie Stothardt, the spokeswoman for rights group the Alternative ASEAN Network, says Burma's economy is so fragile that it could force many in the country to migrate looking for work.

"Even before Cyclone Nargis struck last year Burma experienced an inflation rate of 50 percent," she noted. "If this disaster is not addressed comprehensively and quickly and effectively you are going to send millions of people from Burma out into the rest of the region as migrants simply because they can no longer survive in their own country, which ironically used to be considered "the rice bowl of Asia".

Burma's military government last week agreed to allow more foreign aid workers in to the hardest hit areas. Aid agencies say the flow of supplies is growing, but workers still must give authorities 48 hours notice before they can go to the delta region.

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