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Starvation threatens in once fertile Myanmar

  • Story Highlights
  • Farmers fear massive rice shortage after cyclone destroyed fertile land
  • Rice seed needs to be planted in the next two months to be a success
  • 200,000 tons of rice estimated to have been damaged by storm
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YANGON, Myanmar (CNN) -- Farmer U Han Nyunt stands on some of the most fertile land in the world -- and fears that he will starve to death.

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A Myanmar farmer holds rice seeds destroyed by Cyclone Nargis. Farmers fear a rice shortage.

Acres and acres of rice fields surround him. Once they were his source of livelihood. Now they lie submerged and useless, after a devastating cyclone tore through Myanmar in early May.

Cyclone Nargis claimed more than 130,000 lives and left more than 2 million homeless, the U.N. says.

Now a second catastrophe awaits if new rice is not planted in the coming weeks -- potentially inviting a massive food shortage.

"We are all going to die here," Nyunt said. "But not because of the cyclone. We will die because we have no food."

The low-lying Irrawaddy Delta, which bore the brunt of the storm, is known as Myanmar's rice bowl region and produces up to 60 percent of the country's crop, the U.N .Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates.

Farmers plant twice a year: once during the dry season and again in the rainy season. Video Watch food being distributed as mourning period begins »

By the time the storm hit, farmers had harvested their dry season crop.

"But the problem," says Concepcion Calpe, a senior economist with the FAO, "is that a lot of it was still in the field and it was completely wiped out."

Farmers tried to salvage some of the yield by drying it, but the country has entered its rainy season -- and downpours have dampened that prospect.

Calpe's organization estimates that 200,000 tons of rice may have been damaged by the cyclone.

She says the government has enough rice in its reserves to offset the loss. The challenge is to deliver it to hard-to-reach areas.

"The problem is not of supply," she says. "It is now a problem of logistics because you have to reach people and provide some minimum supply of rice."

The bigger worry for aid groups is what lies ahead.

With the rainy season here, farmers will need to plant in the next two months if they stand any hope of a second yield.

Salt from the cyclone flooding has seeped into the soil, preventing planting in some areas altogether, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

"No rice will grow here for a very long time," said Han Nyunt. "The soil is dead because of the flood water that the storm brought.

"We are trying to dry the seeds in the sun," he said. "But it is hopeless. Once the seeds have started sprouting like this, we can't plant them anymore. All we can do is feed them to the animals." Video Watch footage on aid bottleneck »

There is also a lack of animals to help plow the crop.

A boat trip down the delta's rivers revealed bloated carcasses of water buffaloes, the main farming animals in the area.

Soon after its independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar -- then known as Burma -- was the world's largest rice exporter.

But decades of economic policies by the ruling military junta, which came into power in 1962, stripped it of the title. Still, it produces a significant amount.

This year, the secretive junta had granted private companies licenses to export excess rice to Myanmar's neighbors.

The government had expected to export about 600,000 tons. And aid groups had hoped that the delivery would help mollify the recent global panic over scarce rice.

Now, however, it is unlikely that Myanmar will be selling rice to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or other countries.

People in Myanmar consume about 44 pounds of rice every month, compared with 15 pounds in Asia as a whole, according to the FAO.

Yet there may be one silver lining in the cyclone's dark cloud: the same rainfall that prevents farmers from drying their harvest will also, with time, wash away the salinity from the soil.

Calpe was optimistic the fields could recover in time for a healthy, albeit slightly smaller, rice yield.

The USDA estimates Myanmar's rainy season rice yield at 10 million tons.

But to achieve that, farmers -- homeless and hungry -- need help.

Aid agencies have struggled to gain access to the country, and only a limited number of relief flights have landed. The regime has indicated it would like supplies but not international aid workers.

The message may slowly be sinking in.

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Even as it began a three-day mourning period Tuesday for the victims of the cyclone, Myanmar agreed to let its South Asian neighbors send medical personnel and an assessment team to the country.

Myanmar's decision to accept aid from its neighbors came after an emergency meeting in Singapore of the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

CNN's Saeed Ahmed and a CNN reporter in Myanmar contributed to this report.

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