Global disruptions like as COVID-19, the climate crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier last year have all had an impact on food supplies around the world. However, Sri Lanka’s food insecurity is largely the result of the country’s current economic crisis and Sri Lanka’s economic crisis continues to affect the lives and livelihoods of its people. The situation has deteriorated, with debt problems spreading to affect every aspect of the economy harmfully.
Sri Lanka is in the grip of the worst economic crisis it has faced since its independence in 1948. It follows on the heels of successive COVID-19 waves that have threatened to undo years of development progress, severely undermining the country’s ability to meet the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, the economy contracted by 11.8 percent in the third quarter of 2022, the second worst quarterly economic contraction in Sri Lanka’s history.
The country can no longer pay import bills for food, fuel, gas and other necessities for citizens’ daily lives and repaying massive foreign debts is a far-off dream. Prices for most food items have been steadily rising since the fourth quarter of 2021, reaching a record high in August 2022, with a year-on-year food inflation rate of nearly 94%, further limiting household purchasing power. According to a World Bank report, Sri Lanka ranks fifth among ten countries with the highest food price inflation. Food inflation is a significant contributor to food insecurity.
In 2009, 88% of households had enough food. Sri Lanka had a food security score of 48.6 (ranking 60th globally) according to the Global Food Security Index in 2013, making it one of the most food secure nations in South Asia. Only 10% of Sri Lankan households are currently food secure. According to the most recent World Food Program (WFP) assessment in Sri Lanka, 86% of families are purchasing less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals entirely. Because they cannot afford high-quality, nutritious food, families are more likely to turn to cheaper and unhealthy alternatives (78% of families).
Reduced domestic agricultural production, a lack of foreign exchange reserves and currency depreciation have resulted in food shortages and an increase in the cost of living, limiting people’s access to healthy and affordable meals.
The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 6.3 million people or more than 30% of Sri Lanka’s population, are food insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance. Around 5.3 million of these people are either reducing or skipping meals and at least 65,600 are severely food insecure. As the island nation’s crisis worsens, this situation is likely to worsen due to higher inflation, loss of livelihood, weak purchasing power and an acute shortage of essential items such as food, medicine, cooking gas and fuel. Furthermore, government-imposed import restrictions have made certain food items scarce. These supply shortages have resulted in price increases for essential foods. The situation has further worsened as the Government has scaled down its nutrition programs, such as school meals and fortified food for mothers and malnourished children, due to severe financial constraints.
Staple foods such as rice and vegetables have more than doubled in price. Cooking gas is both expensive and scarce, making it difficult for many people to keep kitchen fires going. According to the World Food Program, rising food prices are making it more difficult for people to meet their nutritional needs. Furthermore, incomes have plummeted as a result of the economic crisis, with approximately two out of every five households reporting that their income has been cut in half.
To cope with food insecurity, 5 million people are using crisis or emergency livelihood coping strategies, which are likely to have an impact on their medium- to long-term capacity for income-generating activities and food security. According to a World Food Programme (WFP) survey, 79% of households are using food-based coping strategies to deal with the crisis. This has an impact on both the quantity and quality of food consumed.
According to the joint FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) report, two consecutive seasons of poor harvests in Sri Lanka resulted in a nearly 50% drop in production, as well as reduced imports of food grains due to foreign exchange constraints.
Although Sri Lanka is a fertile tropical land with the potential for crop cultivation and processing, issues such as productivity and profitability limit the growth of the sector. 80% of Sri Lanka’s land is in dry and intermediate zones, where water is scarce. Farmers suffer because they do not have enough fuel quotas to run water pumps that supply continuous water to their farms and paddy fields.
Vegetable farmers do not have a special quota for fuel, whereas paddy farmers have a limited fuel quota during harvesting that is insufficient to transport their yields. According to a joint statement released by CFSAM, paddy rice production, the main food staple, is forecast at 3 million MT in 2022, the lowest level since the 2017 drought-affected harvest, owing primarily to low yields as a result of reduced fertilizers.
The overnight ban on chemical fertilizer imports was costly and resulted in a lower harvest. Although the ban has since been lifted, the impact on the food system remains. The sharp drop in domestic yield has prompted policymakers to spend more money importing necessary commodities previously produced locally, including staples such as rice. This move has been counterproductive at a time when foreign reserves are scarce.
Devastating crisis for children and women in Sri Lanka
All essential health services have been severely impacted by critical shortages of medicine. There are ongoing stock-outs of essential medicines affecting pregnant and lactating women, as well as children, which are expected to last for several months. Children are disproportionately affected by Sri Lanka’s unfolding economic crisis. As a result, 2.3 million children require immediate humanitarian assistance.
More reports of child abuse, exploitation, and violence are already emerging as a result of mounting economic pressure. Over 10,000 children are already in institutional care in Sri Lanka, primarily due to poverty. But such institutions are not the best place for a child to grow up in, as they lack the bond of a family. Unfortunately, the current crisis is forcing an increasing number of families to admit their children to these institutions because they are unable to provide for them, including feeding.
Learning has also been significantly disrupted. Many schools have just reopened after some of the region’s longest pandemic-related school closures, disrupting learning for 4.8 million children. School attendance rates have plummeted and are likely to fall further as school meals, which are often the only source of nutritious food for many marginalized children, are discontinued. Continuity of learning must be ensured for girls and boys of all ages, so they can prepare for their future and are shielded from the threats of child labour, exploitation and gender-based violence.
Malnutrition rates in Sri Lanka were already high prior to the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the World Food Programme. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan women and children experienced far higher rates of malnutrition than most other middle-income countries: 17% of children under the age of five were stunted and 15% were underweight for their height (wasted). The current economic crisis is likely to exacerbate this further. Furthermore, weather extremes such as droughts, floods and landslides are exacerbating food and nutrition insecurity.
FAO’s work in Sri Lanka during this crisis
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sri Lanka is addressing urgent food security needs, protecting the livelihoods of vulnerable farmers and fishers in the most affected districts, and promoting urban agriculture in collaboration with its partners. FAO is providing fertilizer packs to over 15000 smallholder farmers in five of the country’s poorest districts in order to strengthen their production capacity. A plan is being finalized to assist another 116,800 smallholder farmers with fertilizer supply.
Approximately 7000 of the most vulnerable small-scale marine artisanal fishers have received unconditional cash transfers to meet their immediate food needs. To improve their livelihoods, 8,700 smallholder green gram farmers will be trained on yield improvement and will receive a one-time cash transfer to ensure they meet their basic needs without resorting to negative coping strategies. FAO is also encouraging urban agriculture in Colombo to improve food security for the city’s poor by providing agriculture kits, nutrition packs and comprehensive training on establishing home gardens and community garden initiatives to up to 600 low-income households. Donor funding is being sought to scale up these and other similar activities.
WFP’s work in Sri Lanka during this crisis
Since 1968, the World Food Program (WFP) has collaborated with the Sri Lankan government to combat malnutrition, assist families in gaining access to food and increase the productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers.
Between June and December 2022, WFP planned to assist 3.4 million people whose food security, nutrition and livelihoods were endangered through general food distribution, school meals and nutrition support. This targeted assistance will target the most vulnerable and marginalized communities, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, women-headed households and low-income households with more than four members registered in Samurdhi, the national social protection scheme.
WFP has reached 576,944 people with cash assistance (479,908) and in-kind (97,036) assistance since the start of emergency operations in mid-August 2022. This is due to the WFP’s response scaling up, which aims to reach 1.4 million people through unconditional food assistance (cash or in-kind) and WFP distributed rice to 3,517 schools in November, reaching a total of 479,087 children. The WFP intends to provide school meals to one million children through the Government’s national school meals programme.
WFP is working with the government and donors to provide raw materials (maize and soybean) to the government’s Thriposha facility, which provides nutritious food to approximately one million pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children. In addition, WFP helps school-aged children in food-insecure areas gain year-round access to food, provides nutritious food to children under the age of five, adolescent girls and women of reproductive age and assists communities in preparing for and responding to climate shocks. To promote equality and strengthen food and nutrition security for women and girls, gender empowerment is integrated into all WFP activities.
UNICEF also has been in Sri Lanka for over 50 years. With the support of partners, distributing education supplies, providing meals to pre-school children and badly needed cash transfers to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. But as the crisis persists, much more is needed
While long-term strategies are needed to counter the underlying causes of food insecurity and ensure sustainable domestic production, immediate action must be taken to tackle the challenge of ensuring people do not go hungry at present. The actions must be coupled with medium- to long-term initiatives that ensure sustainable food production in the future. Moreover, policymakers must be willing to be flexible and change their course of action if needed, given the volatility of the current situation. The consequences of failing to do so will leave lasting impacts on the lives and livelihoods of the people.