UN warns of increasing food insecurity in Sri Lanka

The UN team and non-governmental organizations working jointly on the island nation under the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan announced the revision and extension of HNP targets on November 8

November 11, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Sri Lanka tea farm
A Sri Lankan tea farm. (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

The UN  Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned that at least 5.7 million people or 26% of the population in Sri Lanka require humanitarian aid. The agency added that “without immediate humanitarian assistance, and ‘upstream’ interventions to address the fragility of systems, services and facilities, this number will multiply, and the consequences will deepen.”

“96% of households in the survey overall have been affected by the current crisis,” the OCHA said, issuing its Needs Assessment Report for October 2022 released on November 3. The report highlighted the three main priority needs at the household level – food, health, and livelihood. Other major priorities include psychological well-being and the education of children, the report added.

On November 8, the UN team and non-governmental organizations working jointly on the island nation under the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities (HNP) Plan announced the revision and extension of HNP targets. The revised plan will be extended to 3.4 million people in Sri Lanka till the end of 2022 and will require USD 70 million in addition to the USD 79 million that was raised through global appeal in June. 

“Food insecurity in Sri Lanka has increased dramatically due to two consecutive seasons of poor harvests, foreign exchange shortages, and reduced household purchasing power…….Twenty-eight per cent of the population – or 6.3 million people – face moderate-to-severe acute food insecurity,” the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka stated.

Sri Lanka has been reeling from several months of economic crisis which has led to severe shortages of food and fuel. 

Nearly 32% of Sri Lankan households are currently food insecure, the World Food Programme (WFP) noted in its Household Food Security Survey for September 2022. Nearly 68% are turning to food-based coping strategies such as eating less preferred food, reducing the number of meals and limiting portion sizes.

Poverty rose from 13.1% to 25.6% between 2021 and 2022, according to the World Bank’s 2022 Development Update. Meanwhile, food inflation in October hit 85.8%.

Sri Lanka’s widespread economic crisis triggered mass anti-government protests this year, forcing the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime to step down on grounds of economic mismanagement. A new government came to power in July under the leadership of five-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Protests have continued, however, as the island’s 22 million population continues to face food insecurity, loss of livelihoods, and increasing repression of dissent.

Increasing insecurity, falling food production

Sri Lanka’s food security problem has been compounded by a steep fall in food production which has spelled disaster for the 23.73% (2020) of its population still dependent on agriculture. The OCHA’s Needs Assessment Report acknowledged a “serious decline in domestic agricultural output brought on by an unsuccessful agricultural transition to organic farming has deepened the crisis.”

In April 2021, the former government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa imposed an all-out ban on importing chemical fertilizers into the country. Although it has been one year since the ban was revoked in November last year, agricultural productivity has suffered a severe blow with nearly 40 to 50% reduction in agricultural outputs for Maha and Yala seasons.

The production of tea, Sri Lanka’s biggest export commodity, also fell by 18%. From January-September 2022, production hit a 26-year low at 192.37 million kilograms from 234.72 million kilograms last year, reported Economy Next.