The people of Kampuchea (Cambodia) are facing a food shortage that could threaten the tenuous progress toward self-sufficiency they have made since the severe famine of 1979-80.
It appears the Western commitment to Kampuchean relief may be slackening, in part because of dissatisfaction with the Soviet Union's contribution to the aid effort. Kampuchea has been occupied by Vietnam since 1979. Its Soviet-backed government is not recognized by most Western and noncommunist Southeast Asian governments.
United Nations agencies have been reporting for the last five months that a poor year-end harvest in 1981, caused by drought, then flooding during the monsoon, has resulted in rice shortages estimated at 278,000 tons. This deficit is more than one-quarter of Kampuchea's rice requirement.
A United Nations official said in an interview that until recently there were few signs of starvation or severe malnutrition in Kampuchea. But by late summer, he said, conditions could deteriorate seriously, particularly in the provinces around the capital, Phnom Penh, and in the south-eastern region.
''In Kampuchea,'' the official said, ''you have a cliff-line. They run out of food and, bang, that's that.'' He estimated that 50,000 metric tons of food aid will be needed to assist areas most severely affected by the poor harvest.
The precariousness of the situation was underlined in a January report from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF): ''The overall nutritional level at present is not considered poor. However, even the usual local buffers against famine, such as household food stocks, household savings, a well-entrenched network of health facilities, and agricultural extension agents, do not exist. Given the fragility of the health and nutritional status of vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant mothers, the upcoming food shortage could have rapid and drastic effects.''
The UN official said the shortage could disrupt the 1982 monsoon harvest because peasants may decide to flee to the Thai-Kampuchean border to obtain food from relief agencies, as happened in 1979 and 1980. ''They're not going to wait until everything runs out,'' he said. ''The farmers are going to make a calculation whether they can make it to the next harvest. If half a million farmers decide to head for the border, all heck is going to break loose.''
Since January, both UNICEF and the International Red Cross have been reporting that the population migrating into areas along the Thai-Kampuchean border is increasing and that most new arrivals are seeking food. The present population of the border settlements is estimated to be more than 200,000, up from 125,000 last May.
However, Joel Charny, Southeast Asia projects director at Oxfam-America, said that because the areas hardest hit by the food shortages are farthest from the border, it is unlikely that large numbers of people will undertake the trek.
Charny said the Kampuchean peasants would probably find the means to survive during the approaching shortage, living on secondary crops and foraged foods. He said the food deficit would be felt most in the cities, where international assistance had offset earlier shortages.
There is some doubt whether such aid will be available this year. Unlike the last two years, when UN agencies raised more than $600 million for relief operations in Kampuchea and Thailand, contributions to the latest UN funding appeal have been small.
Western governments, which have provided the bulk of donations to the UN programs in Kampuchea, have been reluctant to continue a major aid effort this year. At a February donors meeting, they questioned the UN projection for the 1982 food deficit and donated only about $10 million. The United States contributed approximately $2.5 million.
A State Department official said in a recent interview that there is ''a lot of contradictory evidence'' about the food shortage. He said the US is ''just not convinced'' that ''massive additional inputs'' are required.
He said the US contribution was part of a ''contingency plan'' to keep ''the food pipeline going.'' The US ''will consider providing additional aid,'' he said, if it becomes clear that there is indeed substantial need.
There is some speculation among relief agency officials that the Western governments will not commit more money to Kampuchean relief until the Soviet Union increases its food-aid program. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the Soviet Union's assistance to Kampuchea in 1981 totaled about 45,000 tons of food, while approximately 81,000 tons were provided by the UN relief program. The US asserts that the Soviet-bloc governments should provide more than 50 percent of the humanitarian aid needed by Kampuchea.
The Soviet Union has not yet announced its 1982 contribution to Kampuchea, and the State Department official said the US government is ''really outraged that they haven't done anything about it this year.''
Speaking before the February donors meeting, the American representative, Jose Sorzano, said, ''It is imperative that Western assistance not be used to subsidize a foreign occupation or to make up for the failure of the occupying power and its supporters to fulfill their responsibilities.''