The global media has reported widely on the immense damage that Cyclone Nargis caused to crops, fisheries and livestock in Myanmar, and international agencies and governments have justifiably shown particular concerns for the coming rice crop. However, another important product that has also been seriously affected but has attracted less interest is salt.
According to official figures, some 25,430 acres of salt pans were submerged and 29,545 tons of salt damaged or destroyed on May 2 and 3, most of them private holdings. Among the worst affected areas were Laputta, one of the country’s top salt producing townships, and neighbouring Ngapudaw. By local accounts, perhaps eight out of every ten cultivators and workers were killed in the storm.
In some places where the manufacturers survived, they have had difficulty getting credit with which to reestablish themselves. The merchants who ordinarily advance them money in times of hardship are also facing personal difficulties that have made them unable or unwilling to help struggling cultivators who are, like paddy farmers, fearful of having their lands confiscated and handed over to businessmen if they don’t start working again soon.
Meanwhile, the price of salt has risen by three to six times in the last two months. According to the Bangkok-based New Era Journal, a salt merchant in downtown Yangon told its staff that in the weeks after the cyclone one viss (3.6 pounds) of salt in the retail market jumped in price from around 200 Kyat to over 1000 Kyat (roughly 17 to 85 US Cents) and had since fallen back to around 500 Kyat at the start of July. The Voice journal, which publishes in the city, said that it was still around 700 Kyat, having reached a high of 1300. It reported that in Rakhine State, where there are also salt flats that were unaffected, the average retail cost had gone from around 100 Kyat to 400, while a salt refiner in Pathein told New Era that cooking salt sold at his door was 80 Kyat before the cyclone and 240 Kyat now, and table salt that was 110 before is 370 now.
Salt isn’t a life-or-death commodity like clean water and rice, but it’s an essential part of everyone’s diet, and in Myanmar it features not only in curries but also is used heavily in dried and fermented fish, prawn and fruit products for a market where refrigeration is uncommon. The increases in its prices will have knock-on effects into a range of other commodities and in coming months continue to add to the aggregate pressure on modest household budgets countrywide.
To prevent this pressure from causing open discontent, a number of writers have suggested that the government will concentrate on keeping prices down and supplies adequate in Yangon, where protest usually starts and is most visible. So far as salt is concerned, New Era says that the city consumes about a million viss per month and at present its warehouses are holding almost eight million tons, so for the time being prices may increase but there will still be salt on the shelves. Whether or not price increases persist and shortages follow in the next year or two depends very much on what is done in the remainder of this year to refinance cultivators and rehabilitate their lands.