Delta Rapid Market Assessment Report: Understanding the impacts of COVID-19 on rural smallholder farmers and food systems in the Ayeyarwady Delta

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The COVID-19 Pandemic is jeopardizing economies, healthcare, and food systems throughout Myanmar. Although the health effects will certainly be felt very strongly, it is expected that the negative economic impact on the most vulnerable will be much greater in scope and duration. While it is not possible to fully grasp the geographic reach and severity of this rapidly evolving Crisis in Myanmar, the RMA, combined with learned experience from recent outbreaks, paints a picture of the likely impacts on food and income security of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Crisis has affected urban areas more quickly and more prominently, with Yangon, the country’s largest city, marked as the epicenter of the Pandemic and significantly affected by physical distancing restrictions such as closures of stores and restaurants. In addition, Yangon’s densely populated urban and peri-urban areas make physical distancing even more challenging, amplifying COVID’s risk factors. However rural areas are also being increasingly impacted as the Crisis has forced tens of thousands of migrants to return to their villages, due to diminishing job opportunities in urban and peri-urban areas, as well as nearby countries.

The Ayeyarwady Delta is administratively divided into 26 townships and 6 districts, covering coastal and lowland areas, with three sub-agricultural zones. The Ayeyarwady River basin and its delta includes four main river arms and four main agricultural trade corridors indicated on the map. The Delta’s population is dominated by landless and smallholder farming households. Of these, the majority have incomes that are characterized as low, unreliable and overly dependent on the agriculture sector and/or limited remittances, resulting in protracted debt cycles and endemic food insecurity; this renders landless households particularly vulnerable to shocks and stresses. The region is known as Myanmar’s “rice bowl”, signifying the region’s importance in producing main staples for the country.

As the virus creates fragilities in the local market systems, it has the potential to trigger new food and income insecurity, particularly on the landless and smallholders farming households. Therefore, the country’s entire food security is at risk, as the inability of the agricultural sector in the Delta to cope with the Crisis could have knock-on effects throughout Myanmar. Findings from the RMA demonstrate multiple layers of economic impact related to the COVID-19 Crisis that has created breakdowns in supply chains: potential shortages and price spikes of inputs, reduced market outlets for agricultural products, distortions in the labour market, and reduced cross-border trade; all of these will affect food production and food security. As economic migrants move back to their rural areas as a result of COVID-19, local rural communities and farming families are faced with additional pressures. It is probable that already limited resources will be consumed quickly, and these additional pressures will place food systems in jeopardy. Given market uncertainties, farmers will be much more risk averse when it comes to investing in agricultural inputs. This could negatively impact overall production and result in a sub-competitive supply of food.