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UPDATED: Drought may leave 80,000 Sri Lankans in need of “life-saving” food aid

A draft emergency assessment obtained by IRIN outlines failed crops, debt and hunger

Anomaa Rajakaruna/IRIN
Just before the monsoon rains a young tractor owner ploughs a rice paddy field as the sun sets in Kilinochchi

Close to one million people in drought-hit Sri Lanka may be in “urgent need of food assistance” with tens of thousands needing “life-saving support”, according to a draft assessment by the government and the UN that has yet to be made public.

Sri Lanka has been dealing with its worst drought in decades over the past year, and people are reaching the breaking point. In a situation report on Monday, the Disaster Management Center referred to 1.2 million people “affected” by the drought. In the draft emergency assessment, the language is much stronger.

“Over 900,000 people are in urgent need of food assistance,” says the draft assessment obtained by IRIN and dated 7 March. Of those, about 80,000 people may need “urgent life-saving support”.

The drought is affecting 23 of the island nation’s 25 districts, across all nine provinces.

Already, many families are being forced to “eat less preferred food, limit portion sizes, reduce number of meals per day,” according to the draft report, which was produced by the government’s disaster management and relief authorities in cooperation with UN agencies, including the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Irreversible coping strategies such as taking children out of school and selling of livelihood assets could be further increased as a result of the exhausted nature of food consumption based coping strategies,” the report warns.

*Sadhana Mohan, a WFP spokeswoman, cautioned that the findings presented in the draft emergency assessment are preliminary and the data has yet to be finalised, although the survey does indicate the seriousness of the situation.

"We know that the drought situation is of serious concern for a significant segment of the population, which has been affected by the worst main harvest in 40 years," Mohan told IRIN.

The assessment says every third household out of the affected population is struggling to access drinking water. The government announced it began delivering drinking water to 180,000 families on 2 March.

Intermittent rains are expected to arrive late this month or early April, followed by the monsoon. Yet, they will not alleviate the problems faced by farmers who have lost their rice harvest to the drought.

“The biggest issue we have right now is the shortfall in the rice harvest,” Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told IRIN. “We are calculating the losses and importing stocks.”

He said the government is planning an assistance package for affected farmers but didn’t provide any further details.

The assessment says the government has also committed eight billion rupees (about $52 million) for a “cash for work” programme.

According to the assessment, only 10 percent of farmers affected by the drought have produced seeds to sow for the next rice harvest, compared to more than 80 percent who are usually able to do so.

Debt has spiked among the affected population too, with more than 60 percent saying they owe more than $1,200.  

“Government of Sri Lanka should consider to negotiate with the financial institution for the possibility of interest free extensions to settle the loans,” says the draft assessment.


(TOP PHOTO: Just before the monsoon rains a young tractor owner ploughs a rice paddy field as the sun sets in Kilinochchi in 2012. CREDIT: Anomaa Rajakaruna/IRIN)

*(This story has been updated to include comment from the World Food Programme)

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