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Natural Disasters Compound Food Security Issues in Sri Lanka

Two years of drought and flooding in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces has resulted in rising household debt levels and spreading food insecurity. The situation highlights the need for relief plans to shield Sri Lankans from future disasters.

Background

As a result of extreme weather conditions over the past 20 months, the food security situation in Northern Sri Lanka has declined to levels not seen since the country’s civil war. Rising debt levels and persistent food insecurity indicate that improved disaster relief assistance and agricultural sector support are needed. Over the past five years, natural disasters have affected nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka’s population. The impact of the extreme weather on crop harvests in rural communities has led to high levels of household debt that will create long-term burdens for farmers. Rice crop yields are expected to recover this year, but attention must now be focussed on intervention measures to mitigate the impact of future disasters in Sri Lanka.

Comment

Persistent food insecurity in Sri Lanka is largely the result of the country’s decade-long civil war, which ended in May 2009. The Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka were worst affected during this period, with 60 per cent of their populations experiencing food insecurity. Widespread population displacement during the civil war exposed many people from these regions to food insecurity. A severe drought and two large floods have occurred during the last 20 months, compounding food security issues for households for whom the devastated rice production was often the sole source of income.

Hunger and malnutrition have risen considerably since these extreme weather events. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 1.2 million Sri Lankans are in need of food assistance as a result of the disasters. Furthermore, one in five children under five in the badly affected Northern Province, are showing signs of undernourishment and stunted growth, with this proportion likely to increase. The government’s drought aid programme only provided assistance to around half of the affected families, while recent appeals from the WFP for US$2.6 million in flood relief have gone unheard.

In the wake of recent poor harvests, Sri Lankan farmers have turned to money lenders to support their households’ immediate food needs. This creates long-term burdens for farmers already struggling in poor economic conditions. There are adequate supplies of food in local markets, but recent nationwide increases in food prices of 12 per cent, mean many of those affected are unable to afford food. Farmers are also contending with rising input costs for fertilisers and pesticides. Limited availability of arable land is also slowing the recovery effort. Many families are turning to alternate sources of income, such as selling personal possessions, to deal with falling incomes and rising debt.

If weather conditions remain normal, forecasts indicate that Sri Lanka’s 2013 rice yield should recover considerably, to a five-year high of 4.1 million tonnes. Long-term interventions are needed to stem deteriorating food security issues, however. Fears of drought conditions in Sri Lanka’s north-west during the upcoming dry season, signal the need for immediate intervention. The maintenance of emergency food reserves and emergency funds are measures that may be utilised to lessen the impact of future disasters. Government funding constraints will, however, create barriers to implementing disaster relief measures.

Jack Di Nunzio
Research Assistant
Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme