May 28, 2008 / 11:48 AM / 11 years ago

"Race against time" to plant Myanmar rice crop

PAW KAHYAN LAY, Myanmar (Reuters) - With their rice paddies drenched in sea water and cattle gone, farmers in Myanmar’s cyclone-hit Irrawaddy delta are struggling against huge odds to plant a new crop to avoid long-term food shortages.

“We have only until June to plant the main rice crop,” one farmer called Huje said in the village of Paw Kahyan Lay, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Yangon.

“Our fields are flooded with salt-water and we have no water buffalo to plough with,” the 47-year-old said, standing with his daughter in the ruins of their home.

The 12-foot (3.5-metre) sea surge from Cyclone Nargis on May flooded over a million acres of arable land in southwest Myanmar, state media said on Wednesday, and killed more than 280,000 cattle and water buffalo.

The ruling generals’ main mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, said there was an urgent need for tractors, power tillers, seed, fertiliser and fuel for the “timely cultivation in storm-affected areas”.

Myanmar has appealed for $243 million (123 million pounds) in aid to get rice farmers back on the land, and $20 million for new livestock.

The June planting, watered by the seasonal monsoon rains, produces the main rice crop in the delta, the “rice bowl of the Asia” in the days when Myanmar was called Burma and administered as part of the British empire.

A smaller summer harvest between December and March relies on irrigation and is not as critical as the June harvest, 80 percent of which is exported, mostly to Sri Lanka.

International aid groups and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said that while farmers faced near-impossible odds to get the crop in, they might be able to manage just enough to get by.

“If they can grow one acre of rice, that will be enough to provide for domestic needs until the end of the year,” said Brien Agland, who heads relief efforts for CARE in Myanmar.

The U.N. estimates that 2.4 million people were severely affected by the cyclone, which also left 134,000 dead or missing, and says it may have to feed 750,000 people for months.

In the next three weeks, aid agencies face the huge task of finding seeds for new crops, draining saltwater from paddies, buying salt-tolerant rice varieties and bringing in buffaloes to plough fields.

“We will find animals in Myanmar, but they then have to be tamed to plough fields and that isn’t easy,” Agland said.

They are also competing against shattered infrastructure and the stifling bureaucracy of a military that has been in power for 46 years.

The only lucky break will be if the torrential rains of the last two weeks have washed out much of the saltwater from fields, as happened after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“We are racing against the clock,” an FAO spokesman said. “But we hope that the ground at least may not be that bad. It has been raining hard and we hope much of the salt has been washed away.”

Writing by Darren Schuettler, Editing by Ed Cropley

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