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A Welcome Harvest

Myanmar, December 8, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Jeremy Barnicle/Mercy Corps

Bo Kone, Myanmar - It would be hard to overstate the importance of rice to the people of Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta. Rice is the staple food around which all meals are built. It is the cash crop that fuels the local economy. It is the livelihood that employs just about everyone who lives here: when it's time to plant, everyone is planting; when it's time to harvest, everyone is harvesting.

So when Cyclone Nargis flooded millions of acres of rice paddy with salt water, it wasn't just a food source that was threatened — it was an entire way of life.

To complicate matters, the cyclone hit just before planting season and farmers lost everything they needed to get the year's crop in the ground: seed supplies, draft animals and equipment.

"Everything we had was gone," says Thein Khine, a 22-year-old rice farmer as he takes a break from harvesting his crop. "We lost 4,000 bushels of rice in storage, 32 water buffalos and cows, our house — but we were very lucky that our family was okay."

When Mercy Corps arrived in the area soon after the cyclone, it was immediately clear that getting the rice farms back on track needed to be a top priority.

"The situation was not good," says Hadi Akther, a local agronomist running a Mercy Corps-funded food program. "Saltwater had inundated the fields, so when the water subsided, the salinity in the top layer of soil was still high. There was tons of debris in the fields. Embankments that controlled irrigation were broken. Seeds and tools were destroyed."

The first step, Akther says, was to replace lost seed. Mercy Corps and its partner Merlin, the UK-based humanitarian organization, immediately brought 100 metric tons of high-yield rice seed to the affected area and started distributing it to farmers.

Then, because it was critical to get the seeds in the ground fast, Mercy Corps provided power tillers and fuel to replace lost draft animals. We also distributed fertilizer and trained farmers in techniques that would maximize their yields.

Watching a field full of workers harvest rice, it appears the program has been a success.

"Without this support," says Thein Khine, the farmer, "the best case scenario would have been a yield about a third the size of the usual harvest. There is still salty water on some of my land and we planted a little late, so I expect we'll get about 70 percent of what we'd usually get."

And for Thein Khine and his crew of day laborers, 70 percent is just fine for now.

"I know we'll get the harvest back where it was," he says. "It could take five or six years. In the meantime, my whole family is cutting back, living on just the necessities. But we'll get there."