Silent tragedy strikes Sri Lanka as hunger crisis looms

Millions of Sri Lankans are drastically cutting down on food intake.

Published : Aug 27, 2022 13:10 IST

Outside a community kitchen at Colombo’s Bethany Church on August 4. The kitchen serves 300 meals every day amid rising food inflation and limited availability of essential commodities in the country.

Outside a community kitchen at Colombo’s Bethany Church on August 4. The kitchen serves 300 meals every day amid rising food inflation and limited availability of essential commodities in the country. | Photo Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

The last of the international media organisations that parachuted journalists into Colombo, when the economic hardship of the people metamorphosed into a political problem, packed up and left Colombo in early August. The last of the protestors at the Aragalaya, the daily gathering of people in front of the Presidential Secretariat, have either left or have been forcibly removed.

As the Sri Lankan situation moves from a daily spectacle to a witch-hunt against those who acted against the state, hidden from the glare of the international media a new tragedy is unfolding: that of families cutting down on food consumption as a means of coping with the economic downturn.

Also read: Roots of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

Across Sri Lanka, the desperate rush and queuing up for food and fuel is no longer visible, but international aid organisations estimate that a large number of people in the country are on the verge of starvation. As of early August, as many as 136 Sri Lankan citizens had managed to cross the Palk Bay and reach the Indian shores at Rameswaram, seeking refugee from starvation.

Food intake down

“Sri Lankans are cutting down on their food intake,” said an official from an international agency, who did not want to be named. “Take the examples of a house with children. If they were being given a glass of milk in the evening, that quantity has been cut down. The house might be able to afford to give milk, but with more water added to it,” he explained, placing the issue of nutrition in the context of accelerating food and fuel prices.

  • Food intake has fallen in Sri Lanka amid the economic crisis.
  • People are buying less food amid rising prices, limited availability.
  • The Hill Tamils are the worst affected by the food crisis.
  • Community kitchens have sprung up to provide meals to the vulnerable.

It is, hence, no longer ironic to point out that Sri Lankan department stores and food outlets do not witness queues any longer, but since prices have risen manifold over the past few months, families are forced to reduce the quantum of purchase. In semi-urban and rural areas, many families are depending on homegrown produce to satiate hunger.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) noted that Sri Lanka was experiencing its worst crisis since its independence in 1948, stating that “around 6.7 million people are now in urgent need of humanitarian assistance”.

The IFRC’s Sri Lanka Emergency–Operation Update No. 1, published on August 11, said: “2.4 million people are already living below the poverty line in despair. With no income, people are barely able to cope with the worsening situation and are now selling their assets, getting into debt, and being forced to cut down on food while many children are not able to go to school.”

According to the WFP Situation Report, dated July 6, Sri Lanka’s population “continues to feel the brunt of the economic and food crises”.

According to the WFP Situation Report, dated July 6, Sri Lanka’s population “continues to feel the brunt of the economic and food crises”.

According to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Situation Report, dated July 6, the population “continues to feel the brunt of the economic and food crises”. It said: “About 3 in 10 households (6.26 million people) are food insecure, 65,600 of which are severely food insecure…. Food inflation is alarmingly high at 57.4 per cent in June 2022. Steeply increasing food prices have crippled the population’s ability to put sufficient and nutritious food on the table.”

The WFP also said that the majority of households assessed by it (61 per cent) were “regularly employing food-based coping strategies such as eating less preferred and less nutritious food, and reducing the amount of food they eat. Two in five households are not consuming adequate diets.”

Hill Tamils worst affected

As expected, the plantation Tamils, who work in the tea plantations of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, and are the most vulnerable people in Sri Lanka, were the worst affected. The WFP said: “The food security situation is worst among people living in the estate sector, where more than half of the households are food insecure. In all measures of food insecurity and coping strategies, these households have consistently poorer outcomes than urban and rural populations. While urban households are depleting savings to cope for now, estate populations are already turning to credit to purchase food and other necessities.”

Also read: The stranded state

The urban poor and single-income households are facing existential dilemmas, given the price of rice and essential commodities. “An estimated two lakh households are using emergency livelihood coping strategies that are likely to severely impact their medium- to long-term capacity for income-generating activities,” the WFP said, adding that it anticipates that more people will turn to these coping strategies as the crisis deepens.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations and the WFP have both warned that acute food insecurity is likely to deteriorate further in 20 countries or situations (including two regional clusters)—called hunger hotspots—during the outlook period from June to September 2022. While many other countries are worse off than Sri Lanka, FAO noted that “around one-third of households in rural and urban [Lankan] areas are applying emergency livelihood coping strategies” and if corrective action was not taken immediately, Sri Lanka’s situation could worsen.

FAO recommendations

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The FAO has recommended some actions to prevent further slipping, which include seeking “multilateral and bilateral aid” to import and provide chemical and organic fertilizers for the summer growing season and inputs such as vegetable seeds to vulnerable small farmers. It has also mooted supplying of high-nutrient animal feed and veterinary health kits to owners of poultry and livestock to mitigate the impacts of the feed shortage from the economic crisis. Besides, the FAO suggested providing “unconditional cash” to farmers to support them in undertaking green gram production as a “mid-season short-cycle crop to support food production”.

According to international aid agencies, they have not been able to raise the resources required to ensure that emergency food supplies reach the people of Sri Lanka. For the July-December 2022 period, the WFP needs $63 million for emergency response. According to its web site, it has managed to raise only $18.14 million so far, from the governments of Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Added to this, it appears that Sri Lanka will have a poor harvest in this ‘yala’ season too (the next season is ‘maha’). Since chemical fertilizers did not reach in time, many Sri Lankan farmers have reported that their rice crop, the staple food, was either withering away or stunted. The yield per hectare too is down, and there is no scope for the country to realise the usual average of season’s harvest of about 2 million tonnes.

Chemical fertilizers could not be imported in time because of the foreign exchange crisis that Sri Lanka faced. This set in motion a series of events, leading up to the poor harvest. Last year, Sri Lanka was forced to spend precious foreign exchange to buy about 1.5 lakh tonnes of rice. This year, in just seven months, it has had to buy thrice the quantity.

Even as Sri Lanka negotiates this tricky terrain, it has become a pawn in the rivalry between India and China, which are both jostling for space in the island nation. The road to recovery for the country appears long, tough and strenuous as geopolitics will engage the Sri Lankan government as much as the needs of its own people. It will ignore either at its own peril.

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