Fazmina Imamudeen assesses the food crisis that’s now facing Sri Lankans

Once a popular tourist destination, Sri Lanka is now on the World Food Programme’s (WFP) list of hunger hotspots. A more macro view reveals that the food crisis is affecting people across the world as well.

Climate catastrophes, regional conflicts and the COVID-19 pandemic were already impacting food production and distri­bution well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the cost of feeding people and their families has exacerbated the problem.

However, one cannot deny that the Russia-Ukraine war has dramatically intensified the situation. Of the 48 countries most reliant on imports from Russia and Ukraine, many have a low per capita income and are among the worst hit.

A record 345 million people are now facing extreme hunger, and it’s threatening their health and ability to provide for their families. According to the WFP, more than 828 million people around the world are experiencing hunger every day.

Although Sri Lanka is not alone in facing this dreadful reality, the island nation is currently weathering an economic storm, which is the worst it has endured. People are literally drowning in waves of hardship due to inflation, increased utility bills and taxation.

Sri Lanka has never been so economically vulnerable since independence from the British in 1948. The country’s foreign exchange reserves have reached perilously low levels and the import of several items has been suspended to conserve what’s left.

Incidents of people committing suicide are highlighted regularly in the media, and poverty appears to be the final destination for many in the middle and lower middle brackets. It is in this context that Sri Lanka reached out to the IMF for assistance through the global lender’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) programme.

Save the Children notes that even though the general public had been urged to grow their own food, rising costs and escalating utility bills have rendered home gardening out of reach for most families.

Currently, 6.7 million people in Sri Lanka require humanitarian assistance as reported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In addition to this, the spectre of malnutrition is looming over the island as well.

As a consequence of the prolonged economic crisis, the cost of food – including for protein items – is continuously increasing. This has resulted in a potentially cataclysmic problem for Sri Lankan children due to the lack of nourishment in the form of protein and other critical food groups.

The rapidly deteriorating economic situation is resulting in many Sri Lankan parents being unable to provide their children with regular balanced meals.

Recently, Amnesty International released a report stating that Sri Lankans are on the verge of starvation due to widespread malnutrition and extreme poverty. This has led to serious concerns about access to even basic healthcare.

UNICEF launched an appeal for US$ 25 million in June, highlighting the need to provide humanitarian relief for 1.7 million children in Sri Lanka.

According to the UN agency, these children are at risk of dying from malnutrition-related causes. Sri Lanka has the second highest rate in South Asia for acute malnutrition among children under the age of five. And at least 17 percent of children are suffering from chronic wasting, which is an illness with a high mortality rate.

During a recent parliamentary debate, Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle spoke about maternal and infant malnutrition.

She stressed that people can’t afford protein-based food, and noted that times are extremely difficult for pregnant women and children.

And she cautioned that a severe shortage of protein is imminent, and that most people can’t afford to eat a diet that’s high in protein. The risk of anaemia is another concern that will come up as a result of poor nutrition for children and pregnant women.

UNICEF notes that in order to cope with the crisis, seven out of 10 households are reducing the number of meals they consume daily. People who previously had three meals a day are now eating only two and those who ate two are now having only one meal a day.

This is a harrowing truth to face since these folk are not voluntarily reducing their caloric intake to follow a fad diet or lose weight.

As the Founder of World Central Kitchen Chef José Andrés says: “Food is national security. Food is economy. It is employment, energy, history. Food is everything.”