Sri Lanka is grappling with the worst economic crisis it has experienced since gaining independence in 1948. The country is no longer able to pay import bills for food, fuel, gas and other necessities of its citizens, and paying off its massive foreign debt is a distant dream.
Prices of most groceries have risen steadily since the last quarter of 2021, hitting a record high in August 2022, with groceries inflation approaching 94 percent year-on-year, further constraining household spending power.
FOOD INSECURITY AND FOOD CRISIS
According to the World Food Program, 6.3 million people, or over 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, are “food insecure” and in need of humanitarian assistance. Of these, about 5.3 million people reduce or skip meals, and at least 65,600 people are severely food insecure. This situation is likely to worsen as the crisis spreads in the island nation due to higher inflation, loss of livelihoods, weak purchasing power and acute shortages of essentials such as food, medicines, cooking gas and fuel.
Without external help, the food security situation is expected to continue to deteriorate, especially during the lean season from October 2022 to February 2023, due to a poor harvest of staples like rice and the ongoing economic crisis.
The prices of staples like rice and vegetables have doubled. Cooking gas is both expensive and, in short, readily available, making it difficult for many to keep kitchen fires burning. WFP said skyrocketing food costs are making it harder for the population to meet their food needs. About 6.7 million people do not eat adequately and 5.3 million people reduce the number of meals during the day, while more than 60 percent of families eat fewer, cheaper and less nutritious foods. The situation has continued to deteriorate as the government scaled back its nutrition programs, such as school meals and fortified foods for mothers and malnourished children, due to severe financial constraints.
According to the FAO, the agricultural sector, which employs 30 percent of Sri Lanka’s people, needs interventions to improve productive capacity to ultimately strengthen the agricultural sector’s resilience, reduce import needs amid tight foreign exchange reserves and stave off the rise in hunger.
Also, incomes have plummeted in the past three months, with around two in five households saying their income has halved. To cope with food shortages, 5 million people are adopting livelihood strategies during crises or emergencies that are likely to impact their ability to generate income and food security in the medium to long term.
According to WFP, 70% of Sri Lankan children were underdeveloped even before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis. That means they were smaller than their age and about 15% were wasted, and 17% of children under 5 are underdeveloped, meaning they were too skinny for their size. With this crisis, the food situation is expected to continue to deteriorate in the coming days.
The UN estimates that half of the children in Sri Lanka are already in need of emergency aid. According to a June 2022 study by Save the Children, 59% of families said they could not fully meet their food needs. Additionally, two in three respondents said their households had to resort to less preferred or less expensive groceries at least once a week prior to the survey. The report states: “More than half of all children have had to eat less favorite foods and children have had to reduce their food intake. About one in ten children had reduced feeding frequency (twice or less).”