BANGKOK, Aug 3 (AlertNet) Â? Three years of scarce rainfall in Myanmar's Central Dry Zone could worsen hunger in this normally hotter area, already one of the poorest in the country and suffering from chronic food shortages, said the outgoing chief of the U.N. food agency in Myanmar.
Because of government restrictions, the World Food Programme has access only to a few townships in the area, which makes it difficult to assess the scale of the local food deficit and to deliver aid, Chris Kaye told AlertNet. Across Myanmar, one in 10 people Â? or more than 5 million Â? go hungry every day, according to a U.N. report.
"It's a slow-burn problem but evidence would suggest it is getting worse," Kaye said of hunger in the arid and densely populated Central Dry Zone, which covers more than a tenth of Myanmar's total land area.
"Firstly rains were delayed. Then rains did begin to kick in and farmers started the planting. Since then there's been a break and now that first set of inputs into the ground is withering and dying."
Myanmar, formerly Burma, was once known as the rice bowl of Southeast Asia. It is now one of the poorest nations in the region with a big hunger problem, the reasons for which are manifold and differ depending on the area.
"There's food in the country but it's not getting to the right places," Kaye said, adding that Myanmar's military government restricts the movement of goods and some ethnic minorities within the country.
Given the lack of information from the Central Dry Zone, WFP has had to rely on small-scale nutritional surveys and anecdotal evidence from the region, which point to a worrying nutritional status of local people, Kaye added.
"We know the government would like more support for the region, but until we are provided with open access to all other townships in the region, our assistance is restricted."
In the meantime, WFP is expanding its operations in other areas of Myanmar - including Chin state and the northern part of Rakhine state - where it intends to feed 2 million people over the next three years.
The U.N. body is asking donors for $122 million to fund the three-year programme, and Kaye hopes donors will provide the money as they "recognise that there's a differential between Myanmar and Cambodia and Laos and it's not really justified". For example, in 2007 Myanmar received $4 per person in development assistance from foreign governments compared to $47 for Cambodia and $68 for Laos.
But aid efforts in Myanmar's south hit by Cyclone Nargis have been severely under-funded and it is unclear whether donors will stump up the cash for the additional food emergency.