An economic crisis and a ban on synthetic fertilizers in Sri Lanka, which has been developing since March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, has triggered civil unrest and food insecurity. The pandemic, with all its containment measures, has led to a rapid decline in foreign exchange earnings, mainly from the tourism sector, worker and diaspora remittances, foreign direct investment (FDI) flows and of world trade.
To save its foreign currency reserves, the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has restricted the import of essential items. Protests erupted over resulting shortages and sharp rise in food prices including milk, dhal/lentils, locally produced vegetables, rice, bread, wheat flour, gas cooking, fertilizer and fuel. Medicines and medical consumables were also lacking.
In the first quarter of 2022, GoSL was unable to import the required amount of petroleum products such as diesel, gasoline, coal and other hydrocarbons used in thermal power plants. This has led to long power cuts (even 13 hours a day), long queues at gas stations and gas stations for days and disrupted timetables for public transport services. The cumulative increase in the price of fuel was 170% compared to the period March-May 2022. In addition, the shortage of food and non-food essential household items continued to worsen. The last annual inflation rate recorded by the government was 21.5%. However, John’s Hopkins University estimates Sri Lanka’s real annual inflation to reach 132% in March 2022.
Since the GoSL decided to limit the importation of inorganic fertilizers in January 2022, the inflation of local agricultural products has risen to 24.7% in February 2022, due to production shortages. In April 2022, food inflation in the country rose to 45.1% from 29.5% in March 2022.
Shortages of food, fuel and medicine turned months of peaceful protests into violence that left 10 dead and more than 250 injured in May 2022. Forty-five buses were set on fire and nearly 150 properties mostly owned by parliamentarians of the ruling party were destroyed. The Sri Lankan president declared a state of emergency on May 6, 2022, the second time in five weeks. Demonstrations continued to take place sporadically, also after the appointment of a new Prime Minister on May 12, 2022 as head of government.
Humanitarian impacts of the crisis
Severe food shortages are expected in the coming months, as food production has fallen by around 50% in the last season (Maha growing season, September 2021 to March 2022) and more than 50% of commercial farmers stopped cultivation during the current season (Yala season). , May-August 2022) due to the unavailability of fertilizer and fuel to operate their equipment. This sharp decline in agricultural production has led to rapid increases in the prices of staple foods such as rice and vegetables, which have a direct impact on household economies and the food security of the most vulnerable.
According to a rapid assessment by the World Food Program (WFP), around 38% of the population already faces moderate to severe food insecurity. The most affected are households in the real estate sector in both rural and urban areas. Based on household analysis, female-headed and irregular-income households are the most likely to be classified as food insecure.
Household access to food was limited and there was a significant and rapid deterioration in the food consumption score. While 91% of people had an acceptable food consumption score in 2021, more than 40% of people currently surveyed by WFP had an unacceptable score.
Due to unaffordability, households consume less food items such as meat, eggs, vegetables and fruits. Households also buy less but buy more often on credit, and they limit portion sizes especially for adults, in order to save food for children. Only 14% of households do not apply a diet-related coping strategy or use a low-stress coping strategy.
More than a third of households in both urban and rural areas are applying emergency coping strategies, such as pulling children out of school, migrating to other areas in search of employment, and selling homes or land. Families in the housing sector are widely adopting coping strategies and tougher measures to deal with food shortages. Rural households with access to land for home gardening or who cultivate crops for commercial purposes are likely to be better able to maintain adequate levels of food consumption and dietary diversity than households in urban and land-based sectors.
The lack of fuel has affected the incomes of personnel employed in the transport sector as well as the ability of fishing communities, for example, to operate their fishing boats on which they depend for their livelihood. The suspension of routine surgeries has been reported at four major hospitals due to a shortage of medical supplies, medicine and power cuts from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Day laborers have lost their income due to shortages of building materials and other resources, in addition to having to spend their days waiting in line for basic goods.
Main humanitarian impacts due to the current crisis:
Civil unrest and violence resulting in injuries, hospitalizations, property damage and arrests.
Loss of livelihoods, especially for urban and rural daily wage earners, who consequently face food insecurity due to sudden loss of income and sharp increase in prices of essential foods and household items; by fishing communities who lack fuel to run their fishing boats; and farmers who lack fertilizer and are affected by sharp increases in agricultural input prices.
A severe food insecurity crisis is looming across the country as some food supplements for children and nursing mothers, such as powdered milk, fresh milk and Thriposha (a nutrient-dense supplementary food) are unavailable .
Children’s education is affected by power cuts, poor public transport and lack of stationery.
Days spent in the heat of the sun and rain waiting in long queues without clean water, food and sanitation lead to deaths and hospitalizations.
The multiple challenges and increased burdens have a detrimental effect on people’s mental well-being.
The shortage of consumables in the country and the sharp decline in agricultural production have led to a rapid increase in the prices of basic foodstuffs such as rice and vegetables.