Lao villagers have a special name for the last months of the rainy season, from August to October: Suang Khaad Khao Kin – the time when there is no more rice. While the new harvest is ripening in the fields, food stocks run low. Also called the ‘lean season’, this time is coming to an end for this year, but for close to 40,000 people in Khammuane province, central Laos, it would have been a lot tougher without help from WFP.
In 2011, Khammuane was hit by two major tropical storms, destroying more than 37,000 hectares of rice fields and leaving thousands of communities with nothing to harvest. The most affected communities are located along the Sebangfai River, which traverses the province from the Vietnamese border in the east, until it flows into the Mekong in the west. In Papanang village, in the remote east close to the border with Vietnam, the river flooded all paddy fields and parts of the village itself. Most villagers lost their entire harvest.
“Even our bamboo shelters were swept from the fields," says Vong Souphanith, 53. “We didn’t even have seeds when we started to prepare for planting this year - we had to borrow them.”
Vong shares a house with her daughter Siphone, her husband and their two children, Sithen (8 months, a boy) and Joy (2 years). In the aftermath of the disaster, the family and many others received rice and oil from WFP to cover their immediate food and nutrition needs.
In January 2012, a follow-up food security assessment showed that even with other crops, money gained from paid labour and collection of food from the river and forest, almost 40,000 people would not be able to cover their food needs until the next harvest in November. With contributions from the European Union's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), Australia, Japan and the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve, WFP organised a second round of food distributions to assist these communities.
Rations consisted of rice, vitamin-fortified oil and Plumpy’Doz, a peanut-based paste used to prevent malnutrition in children under the age of five, who are particularly vulnerable to the short-and long-term effects of malnutrition.
Food delivery started in August, but in the lean season the rains that are necessary to help the new rice grow also turn roads into mudslides, making it difficult for WFP to reach remote villages. The bags and boxes of food had to be re-loaded time and again onto smaller trucks or hand tractors, but in some places even these sturdy vehicles struggled to reach their destinations.
Where roads were completely impassable, WFP used boats to transport food to remote communities like Ban Pakphanang.
Until these rations arrived, Vong’s family coped by borrowing rice from other villages, and eating less nutritious foods such as bamboo shoots more frequently. Sithen and Joy are especially vulnerable to malnutrition. Without enough of the right food their brains and bodies can suffer irreversible damage. Three large spoons of Plumpy’Doz per day, together with other foods, helped provide the energy and essential nutrients they needed.
Thanks to the food distributed by WFP, households managed to get through this unusually challenging lean season without resorting to extreme measures such as eating or selling the small animals and cattle they have to ensure a minimum income for the rest of the year. Two months later, children who were found at high risk of acute malnutrition have enough energy to play and go to school, while their parents are busy in the paddy fields harvesting the long-awaited rice.