Kompong Cham, Kampuchea — As one drives through the rice lands of this province northeast of Phnom Penh , it is difficult to imagine that Kampuchea may be hungry again this year. The fields are crowded with ripening rice, stems bending under the weight of the grain.
Yet the government says the country may have a shortfall of 200,000 to 300, 000 tons of rice in 1984. It would be the largest shortage since 1979 - the year when Vietnamese troops drove the hated Pol Pot regime from Phnom Penh.
In that year, much of the main rice crop was deserted in the fields as people returned to their home provinces and towns from the places to which they had been forcibly assigned during the Pol Pot years. This was the year the world was moved by photographs of Kampuchea's starving children and adults.
Now the problem is weather. Kam-puchea depends for 90 percent of its harvest on the rainy season crop. Relief agency officials in the capital say preparations for the crop were unusually good this year. But rains were delayed in scattered areas of the eastern provinces.
Then there were floods in the western rice bowl of Battambang Province. Rains there were so heavy that an important levee gave way, destroying more rice. When insect damage is included, estimates of area lost rise to more than 375,000 acres, or more than 10 percent of the country's rice fields.
Government officials have been busily underscoring the progress the country has made in the past five years, and so at first they seemed reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of the projected shortfall.
In December, Foreign Minister Hun Sen said the estimates are correct. ''We certainly will encounter difficulties,'' he said, ''but in any case, we will not allow our population to die of starvation.''
But if the people do not starve, they are likely to be hungry. A recent Food and Agriculture Organization study estimates that malnutrition already affects most children under the age of 13. If Kam-puchea has to rely on its own rice production in 1984, the average ration will be only some 23 pounds per month - well below the internationally accepted subsistence level of 31 pounds a month.
In an interview, Foreign Minister Sen said the country is counting on assistance from Vietnam and the Soviet bloc as well as on the country's own efforts to produce secondary crops. But a well-placed source noted that Vietnam, hard-hit by typhoons this year, is not able to send much food. And a specialist in the Agriculture Ministry said that although the Soviet Union is a good source for tractors and other kinds of development aid not offered by the West, it is not likely to send food.
What agriculture specialists would most like to see is contributions of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides for short-term, high-yield rice that could be harvested in July, just before the country begins to feel the pinch from the crop shortfall. Prospects for such aid are dim, according to relief officials. Private agencies cannot send assistance on the scale needed, and it would take too long for aid organized by the United Nations to reach the country.
If assistance were provided in the form of seed, the seed would have to be in farmers' hands by March or April. But the next pledging conference is not expected before late this month, and the machinery of pledging, paying pledges, buying, and shipping aid is time consuming.
This means direct food aid will be needed. But here, too, the prospects do not look good. Even assuming that half the shortfall could be covered by belt-tightening, a Bangkok-based relief official said, the country would need some 150,000 tons of rice.
''We must hope the socialist countries will do something,'' he said. ''If they cover half that reduced amount, there would still be a need for 75,000 tons of purely emergency assistance. This rice would cost $25 to $30 million on the world market.''
''In the past year, Western donors have not been keen on giving aid,'' the official noted. Sweden has contributed about $2 million. More recently, because of the seriousness of the situation, Japan, Australia, France, and the Netherlands have pledged some assistance. The total of these contributions this year seems likely to be in the $10 million range - not $30 million.
The main unanswered question is what the United States and the European Community will do. Based on its past record, the US could contribute as much as
The US does not want to see outright starvation in Kampuchea, a Bangkok-based observer noted. But it is not clear at what point, short of starvation, the US would be willing to contribute to feeding Kampuchea's people.
Other articles in this series appeared Jan. 30 and 31, and Feb. 1, 2 and 6