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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fears of Food Shortages Rise With Thai Floods

By Shibani Mahtani

Southeast Asia’s battle with some of the worst floods in decades is far from over, with waters seeping deeper into the Thai capital of Bangkok. But the United Nations is already warning that parts of Southeast Asia affected by the floods are facing “serious food shortages,” a problem caused by destroyed crops and compounded by the difficulty in delivering food assistance.

A report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization says that significant flooding and devastation across Southeast Asia – including Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand – has caused severe damage to housing, infrastructure and agriculture.

Official estimates indicate that 1.6 million hectares, or 12.5% the total rice farmland has been damaged in Thailand alone. In Cambodia, 12% of paddy fields have been destroyed, with another 7.5% in Laos, 6% in the Philippines and 0.4% in Vietnam according to the FAO. In Thailand, while no precise crop damage estimates are available, the FAO warned that the main rice season is at the critical growth stage and is likely to be affected the most.

The region has also seen scores of livestock killed or displaced, with significant numbers considered to still be at risk. In Thailand alone, 9.9 million head of livestock are at risk according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, though this number is set to rise as the flood situation worsens.

Diplomats and representatives of countries affected by the floods have continued to downplay fears of food shortages across Southeast Asia, where rice is the most important food.

“Of course there will be less output this year, but I think there will be enough for export and for the consumption inside Thailand,” said the Thai Ambassador to Singapore, Nopadol Gunavibool, at a media briefing reported in the Straits Times.

The Cambodia Ambassador to Singapore, Sin Serey, said that some farmers in Cambodia had switched to flood-resistant rice grains which could grow even if paddy fields were flooded. Both were speaking at an event to raise funds for flood victims in Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines.

In Singapore, even though roads have remained relatively dry except for some relatively inconsequential flash floods, some in the import-dependent city-state are still worried about the availability and price of rice. The issue was raised in Singapore’s parliament, but the Ministry of State for Trade and Industry was quick to allay fears that the city-state will be affected. Though rice prices have risen 9% in Singapore since January, Lee Yi Shyan, Minister of State for Trade and Industry said that Singapore imports rice from a variety of sources – including Vietnam, India and the United States.

Additionally, all rice importers in the city-state keep a stockpile of two month’s supply. The Ministry of Trade and Industry is continuing to watch the situation.

Countries affected by the floods, however, may not be as fortunate. The Ministry of Commerce in Thailand warned last week – before the worsening flood situation – that there could be a possibility of a rice shortage later in the year with 5-6 million tons of rice lost to the floods, and an additional 35 warehouses and rice mills devastated.

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