Monday, May 19, 2008

Myanmar, the Mistral, and the Cost of Rice

China Hand looks at the math of the Myanmar cyclone and doesn’t give France a passing grade. Also examined is the as-yet unreported but vital $2 billion question: getting the monsoon rice planting in the ground in the next five weeks. The Myanmar government is thinking about it, but is the West paying attention?

Thanks to the brave embeds of France 24, we are treated to another update on the French helicopter carrier Mistral.

When we last saw the Mistral, it had spent a week sailing futilely in circles in the Bay of Bengal while waiting for the French government to round up rice and supplies in India for it to haul to Burma.

This unfortunate delay undercut the narrative that it was the Burmese government’s deficiencies in French-style compassion, competence, and cran that were impeding the flow of aid to the Irrawaddy delta. The Mistral arrived at the delta two weeks after the storm—hardly an impressive achievement.

It turns out that getting meaningful aid to hundreds of thousands of victims in an area the size of Austria that’s had its infrastructure devastated by a colossal storm isn’t as simple as picking up the phone and ordering delivery of one million crepes Italian—even for a self-styled superpower.

Imagine that.

Another part of the narrative that got lost was the whole “responsibility to protect” forcible distribution of aid thing.

In an indication that even President Sarkozy has turned his back on the profoundly unrealistic gambit, Bernard Kouchner was reduced to venting his displeasure at Burmese government callousness and UN Security Council cowardice in a Le Monde op-ed, instead of availing himself of the official podium of the Foreign Ministry.

The Mistral is cooling its heels outside Myanmar territorial waters, awaiting the outcome of negotiations concerning the delivery of its cargo.

I expect that the Myanmar government is stolidly insisting that the Mistral sail up to Yangyon for a humiliating port visit, while the French are holding out for something with a little more camera-ready elan—something that involves French marines zooming into the delta in little boats and hand-delivering boxes of French aid to desperately grateful survivors.

In its latest report (look for French Ship Mistral Ready to Help), France 24 filmed officers of the Mistral obligingly peering through their binoculars toward Myanmar with expressions of frustrated valor, like bulldogs gazing longingly at the window of a butcher shop. Since it was raining, the exercise had purely symbolic value: “They can’t quite see it...but it’s there”.

Yeah, I get the picture.

Actually, what interests me is the contents of the Mistral’s hold.

The France 24 report states that the Mistral is carrying enough food to feed 100,000 people.

Not true.

The Mistral sailed from Chennai with only 400 tons of rice, instead of the 1,000 tons originally announced.

According to the Indian media, a French rear admiral aboard the Mistral stated :

"As per the orders from our government, the humanitarian aid is being assembled in Chennai and it consists of a two-week supply of emergency rations for 60,000 people."

The aid consists of 400 tonnes of rice, 10,000 20-30 litre jerry cans of water, 400,000 water purification tablets, 20,000 protective tarpaulins, 10,000 mosquito nets, 10,000 sets of cooking utensils and emergency medicines, he added.

According to the FAO, citizens of Myanmar are major consumers of rice—because they have very little else to eat. On average, they consume 20 kg of rice per month.

The Mistral’s 400 ton load of rice would, under normal circumstances, feed about 40,000 people for a fortnight. To meet the 60,000-person target, rations would be cut down to one pound per person per day—providing about 75% of the normal adult requirement of 2,200 Kcal per day. Two weeks of starvation rations, even if presented with Gallic expertise, ingenuity, and flair, is going to test the patience of even the most grateful aid recipient.

Maybe French calculations had something to do with the difficulty of rounding up rice and the desire to come up with an impressive number of aid recipients notwithstanding, but I doubt it.

More likely, disaster planners realized that Myanmar has plenty of rice.

In the last few years, Myanmar, despite years of economic mismanagement by the junta, has returned to its traditional role of rice exporter.

Before the storm, it was on track to export 50,000 tons of rice per month.

According to the starvation-ration standards of French generosity, feeding the entire population displaced by the storm—upper estimate 2.5 million—would require 2.5 million pounds of rice or 1250 tons per day. Two weeks’ disaster relief would require diversion of 17,500 tons of rice. That’s less than 5% of the surplus traditionally available for export. Although it’s not clear how much stored rice was destroyed by the storm, the FAO doesn’t expect famine, although temporary local shortages are possible.

It would be understandable if French disaster planners looked at the aid that the Myanmar government could be expected to deliver—rice—and adjusted its planning to cut back on the supply of Indian rice and instead provide more of what Myanmar didn’t have: water, water purification tablets, medicine, and shelter materials.

Of course, to rely on the Myanmar government to deliver rice and then publicly flay them for not delivering stuff it didn’t have would be a touch hypocritical.

But rice is important, because it is at the center of the true, key issue of international aid to Myanmar: assisting the regime in planting the crucial monsoon-period rice harvest.

This kind of recovery and rebuilding operation—not grandstanding demands that foreign workers handle distribution of aid in the immediate aftermath of the storm—is the true measure of international assistance after a disaster.

The Myanmar regime fully recognizes the importance of the critical monsoon paddy, and the need for foreign assistance in order to get it planted.

I might point out that growing rice is Myanmar’s main business, a major source of export revenue, the key to social stability and, therefore, a primary focus of the Myanmar government.

Contra the Western reporting of a corrupt and callous junta happy to trample on the corpses of its citizens just to keep its jackboots supple and shiny, it seems that the government’s rice boffins have been working hard on the monsoon paddy problem.

In a development that should spark the long-awaited spoink of cognitive dissonance for Western reporters who are obsessed with the “junta refusing aid” meme, Myanmar has already requested aid, in a timely and specific manner, to get the monsoon planting in.

Reuters reports (carried by this particular outlet under the typically sloppy headline, Cyclone hits 20% of Myanmar rice fields--FAO; actually, according to the FAO, 20% of the rice fields in the region that produces 65% of Myanmar’s rice were hit; that’s 13%; as a bonus error the article incorrectly states the monthly per capita rice consumption in kg i/o pounds):

With rice stored from the previous harvest likely badly damaged as well, it was critical to get farmers back on the land to plant a new crop, FAO regional chief He Changchui told Reuters.

"There is not much time. The planting season has started already. We need to have the funds and resources to bring the farmers back," He Changchui said in an interview.


"The consequence is very clear that we might have food shortages if we don't plant today," he said, estimating a 50-day window to get the crop planted.

Myanmar's agriculture ministry says it needs $243 million for rice seed, fertilizer and to rehabilitate paddy fields after the cyclone flooded 5,000 square kilometers (1,931 square miles) in the delta.

The ministry estimated 650,000 hectares of paddy mainly in delta and around the former capital of Yangon were damaged out of a total 3.2 million hectares, He Changchui said.
Some of the funds raised from donors will go towards buying 97,000 tons of seed, including 6,000 tons of salt-tolerant varieties, he said.


With monsoon rains on the way, the FAO hopes they will wash away much of the salt left by the cyclone's 12 foot (3.5 meters) sea surge which inundated prime rice-growing areas in the delta.

Myanmar grows about 30 million tons of rice per year in summer and the bigger monsoon paddies. If none of that 13% of farmland gets planted in time for the monsoon (an unlikely scenario), then the government is looking at a shortfall of perhaps 2,500,000 tons of rice and a shift from Myanmar becoming an exporter of rice to an importer in 2008. If rice is trading at $800 a ton, then successful recovery from Cyclone Nargis and getting the rice crop in is the $2 billion question. And that’s $2 billion the regime doesn’t have.

That’s what the Myanmar junta is obsessing about. It’s a matter a vital interest to them to get the farmers back in the fields with seed and fertilizer.

And maybe that’s really more important than letting in Western NGOs to point fingers at deficiencies in the relief effort, or giving the French Navy a feel-good photo op on the Irrawaddy delta.

The interesting question will be, will the West step up as a donor to help save the monsoon rice harvest, despite the fact that a successfully-executed recovery operation in the delta will probably strengthen the rule of the junta? or will the West sulk in its tent like brave Achilles, while letting Myanmar flounder—or, what is more likely, seeing ASEAN handle the Burmese crisis and China and India supplanting the West in a leadership role in Asian disaster relief?

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