An economic crisis and a ban on synthetic fertiliser in Sri Lanka, which has been developing since March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, has sparked civil unrest and food insecurity. The pandemic, with all its containment measures, resulted in the rapid decline in foreign currency income primarily through Sri Lanka’s adversely impacted tourism sector, worker and diaspora remittances, foreign direct investment (FDI) flows and world trade.
To save its foreign currency reserves, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) limited the import of essential items. Protests erupted due to the resulting shortages and sharp increase in food prices including milk, dhal/lentils, locally produced vegetables, rice, bread, wheat flour, cooking gas, fertiliser and fuel. Medications and medical consumables were also in short supply.
In the first quarter of 2022, GoSL was unable to import the required quantity of petroleum products such as diesel, petrol, coal, and other hydrocarbons used in thermal power plants. This resulted in long power cuts (even 13 hours a day), long queues at fuel and cooking gas stations for days and disrupted schedules for public transport services. The cumulative fuel price increase was 170 per cent from the March-May 2022 period. In addition, the shortage of essential food and non-food household items continued to deteriorate. The government's last recorded annual inflation rate was 21.5%. However, John’s Hopkins University estimates that Sri Lanka's actual annual inflation is as high as 132% as of March 2022.
Since the GoSL decided to limit the import of nonorganic fertiliser in January 2022, homegrown agricultural product inflation increased to 24.7 per cent in February 2022, due to production shortages. By April 2022, food inflation in the country increased to 45.1 per cent from 29.5 per cent in March 2022.
The shortages in food, fuel, and medicine turned months of peaceful protests into violence which killed 10 people and injured more than 250 by May 2022. Forty-five buses were burnt and nearly 150 properties mainly belonging to ruling party parliamentarians were destroyed. Sri Lanka’s president declared a state of emergency on 6 May 2022, the second time in a span of five weeks. Protests have continued to take place sporadically, also after a new prime minister was appointed on 12 May 2022 to lead the government.
Humanitarian impacts of the crisis
Severe food shortages are expected in the coming months as food production dropped approximately 50 per cent during the last season (Maha cultivation season September 2021- March 2022) and more than 50 per cent of commercial farmers have stopped cultivation in the current season (Yala season, May-August 2022) due to non-availability of fertiliser and fuel to operate their equipment. This sharp decline in agricultural production has resulted in rapid price increases for staple food items like rice and vegetables, which directly impact the household economy and food security of the most vulnerable.
According to a World Food Programme (WFP) rapid assessment, an estimated 38 per cent of people are already facing moderate to severe food insecurity. The most affected are the estate sector households in both rural and urban areas. Based on a household analysis, female-headed and irregular income households are most likely to be classified as food insecure.
Household access to food has been limited and there has been a significant and rapid deterioration in the Food Consumption Score. While 91 per cent of people had an acceptable Food Consumption Score in 2021, over 40 per cent of those now surveyed by WFP had an unacceptable score.
Due to unaffordability, households are consuming less food products such as meat, eggs, vegetables, and fruits. Households are also buying less but buying more often on credit, and they limit portion sizes especially for adults, in order to save food for children. Only 14 per cent of households are not applying a food related coping strategy or use a low stress coping strategy.
Over a third of households in urban and rural areas are applying emergency coping strategies, such as withdrawing children from school, migrating to other areas in search of employment and selling houses or land. Families in the estate sector are widely adopting coping strategies and more severe measures to deal with food shortages. Rural households with access to land for home gardening or that cultivate commercially are likely better able to maintain adequate levels of food consumption and dietary diversity than urban and estate sector households.
The lack of fuel has affected the income of staff employed in the transportation sector as well as the capacity of fishing communities, for example, to operate their fishing boats which they depend on for sustenance. The suspension of routine surgeries was reported in four major hospitals due to a shortage of medical supplies, medicines, and 10-13 hours-long power cuts. Daily labourers have lost their incomes due to shortages in construction materials and other resources in addition to having to spend their days in queues for essential commodities.
Key humanitarian impacts due to the ongoing crisis:
Civil unrest and violence resulting in injuries, hospitalisations, property damage and arrests.
Loss of livelihoods, particularly by urban and rural daily wage earners, who consequently face food insecurity due to the sudden loss in income and high price increases of essential food and household items; by fishing communities which do not have fuel to operate their fishing boats; and farmers who lack fertilisers and are hit by sharp price increases in agricultural inputs.
A severe food insecurity crisis is looming across the country while certain food supplements for children and nursing mothers, such as milk powder, fresh milk and Thriposha (an additional food rich in nutrients) are not available.
Children’s education is affected due to power cuts, inadequate public transport, and the lack of stationery items.
Days spent in the hot sun and rain waiting in long queues without drinking water, food and sanitation is resulting in deaths and hospitalisations.
The multiple challenges and increased burdens are having a detrimental effect on people’s mental well-being.
The shortage of consumables in the country and sharp decline in agricultural production has resulted in rapid price increases in staple food items like rice and vegetables.