Amid fuel and medicine shortages, rapid food price inflation, and school closures, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is fast becoming a humanitarian emergency, aid workers are warning, calling for immediate international support to prevent a further deterioration.
“This crisis will turn really catastrophic and people and children will start dying in the coming months if we don’t do something,” Susil Perera, a Sri Lankan-based consultant with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told The New Humanitarian.
As Sri Lanka grapples with a crippled economy and political unrest, petrol queues snake through town centres and daily power cuts leave communities in darkness. But it’s the hefty price tags on food staples and the loss of livelihoods that risk turning it into a protracted crisis.
Of the country’s 22-million-strong population, some 6.7 million people are already estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance – an extremely high level for what the World Bank considers a lower middle-income country.
Unlike many of the world’s humanitarian crises, which are created by conflict or driven by climate change, Sri Lanka’s situation was triggered by an economic collapse brought about by years of dwindling foreign currency. Government mismanagement, coupled with COVID-19 and the loss of tourism revenue, suddenly left the country with insufficient funds.
Earlier this year, shortages began – sparking protests in March – as Sri Lanka struggled to purchase and import essentials, including fuel, food, and medicine. In May, it defaulted on its international debt, for the first time ever. In June, the UN warned of an impending humanitarian crisis. By July, food price inflation, made worse by the war in Ukraine, had reached 81 percent, according to the UN’s human rights office, or OHCHR.
It’s “a multidimensional crisis compounded by food insecurity”, explained Julian Chellappah, Sri Lanka's National Director* at Save the Children International.
In 2019, less than 7 percent of the Sri Lankan population was considered undernourished. There’s no comparative data for now, but there is evidence that while food is available in markets, the prices are so high that people are cutting back. According to the World Food Programme, 86 percent of households have begun to limit portion sizes or skip meals. And a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report stated that, “around one third of households in rural and urban areas are applying emergency livelihood coping strategies.”
“We are all trying our best to survive,” Pramuth Madushanka, a 30-year-old Colombo hotel worker from the city of Kandy, told The New Humanitarian. Madushanka said he worried constantly how he would be able to afford food and other necessities, adding that he had no idea how those on lower incomes are managing.
Most people’s salaries used to cover what they needed for a month, Madushanka said. “Now, for two weeks it’ll be enough, but [for] the next two weeks it’s a challenge.” In 2021, 2.4 million people – 11 percent of the population – were already living below the $3.20 poverty line.
While humanitarian organisations are stepping in, they don’t have enough resources, Perera said, particularly with donors’ attention currently focused “on other countries like Ukraine”.
A small number of organisations, including the Red Cross, Save the Children, and USAID, have been operational in the country for decades – working in areas such as disaster management, child protection, education, and healthcare. Amid this new crisis, they have had to expand or adapt existing operations. For example, Save the Children is growing its school meals programme, the Red Cross is offering cash assistance and food packages, and USAID is supporting small-scale agriculture and microenterprises in vulnerable communities.
“Are the actors on the ground enough? Could do better. Is the funding enough? Not even close, especially for sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence,” said Kunle Adeniyi, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Colombo. As a middle-income country, Sri Lanka had moved away from humanitarian support, he explained.
Between 1983 and 2009, the country was engaged in a bloody civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the minority Hindu Tamil population. At that time – and in response to the 2004 tsunami – a number of humanitarian organisations operated in Sri Lanka. Despite an official end to the conflict, unresolved scars and tensions remain, with certain communities still being marginalised, barriers standing in the way of transitional justice, and families searching for those who remain missing.
“Are the actors on the ground enough? Could do better. Is the funding enough? Not even close, especially for sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence.”
Amid this latest crisis, a group of UN human rights experts last week called for international financial institutions, private lenders, and countries – as well as humanitarian actors – to “come to the country’s aid”. They stressed the need for human rights to be at the heart of any solution, including in government bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
The many different repercussions of shortages
Farmers, Perera said, are among the worst affected. Last year’s sudden chemical fertiliser ban – imposed by the government as a way to limit spending on imported fertiliser – instead “deepened” the economic and debt crisis, according to OHCHR. The ban resulted in a 40 percent to 50 percent reduction in the production of crops like rice and tea, limiting the potential for foreign export, which slashed farmers’ incomes.
Women are also of particular concern, Adeniyi said, especially when it comes to maternal health, family planning, and gender-based violence, “which is exacerbated and continuing to increase because of the situation we are in.”
“COVID-19 taught us a lesson; GBV is one of the things that immediately increases in times of strife,” Adeniyi said, adding that UNFPA supports 10 women’s shelters across the country and is providing dignity kits that include sanitary items and contraceptives. The fuel crisis has hampered the ability to deliver these to communities in more rural areas, including tea plantations, Adeniyi explained. “At the UN, we are looking at how we leverage our competencies… and find partners on the ground who can deliver quick service,” he said. “But for now, it’s very difficult.”
“I worry that people are not attending antenatal services, so high-risk pregnancies are not being identified.”
Fuel shortages can also prevent pregnant women from reaching a hospital, clinic, or midwife for antenatal services, deliveries, and postnatal care. Around 145,000 women are currently pregnant in Sri Lanka and approximately 60,000 of them will require a Caesarean section, Adeniyi explained. “In times of crisis, biology does not stop… reproduction does not stop,” he said. “I worry that people are not attending antenatal services, so high-risk pregnancies are not being identified…which has more potential for maternal mortality.”
Sexual and reproductive health services and family planning should, Adeniyi believes, be integrated into the basic humanitarian response.
Other groups of vulnerable people are also likely to be put at greater risk as hundreds of essential medicines, 2,700 surgical items remain out of stock, and non-urgent surgeries are postponed.
Chameera Peiris is a volunteer first aid instructor with the Red Cross and was based for three months at the Galle Face protest site in Colombo where hundreds of demonstrators gathered to call for political change. In the early hours of 22 July, security forces violently cleared the site and the Red Cross station had to be relocated.
While the volunteers are treating dozens of people each day, supply shortages limit the medicines the nurses and doctors are able to administer, Peiris explained. Before the first aid tent was moved, a whiteboard outside listed some of the supplies the Red Cross required, including amoxicillin, dextrose, and surgical masks.
The fuel shortages have also occasionally put some of the team’s ambulances out of use. “We can’t transport patients to hospital,” Peiris said. “Before, we had three ambulances here, but now only one [because of] fuel problems.”
Across the country, queues at petrol stations are organised into different lines for lorries, tuk tuks, mopeds, cars – as well as for machines such as generators, chainsaws, and strimmers – that stretch for blocks. While Red Cross ambulances and other service vehicles get priority, there’s limited fuel available, and drivers and owners often wait days – missing work as they wait in line. According to the UN, 62 percent of households have had their income reduced since March.
Speaking from his tuk tuk on a Colombo side street, Asky, a 33-year-old tour guide and tuk tuk driver, explained how waiting meant lost income. “We can’t exactly work. When you’re in the queue, you have to wait for three or four days,” said Asky, who declined to give his last name. “You can’t change clothes; you can’t go back to your home.” For his wife, meanwhile, it meant a 4-kilometre walk each way to drop off and collect their three children from school.
Until this week, many schools, however, had been closed since late June, after the fuel shortages prompted the government to rule that only essential services should operate.
Jayantika Kalyani, a 50-year-old farmer living in Matara district in southern Sri Lanka near Galle, believes “children's education should not be disrupted”. Her 13-year-old daughter was supposed to attend regular online classes during the hiatus, but she said they’ve only been happening sporadically as both students and teachers are demotivated.
Having lost a significant amount of income in an unsuccessful switch to organic farming, Kalyani said her family would leave the country if they could and is looking at ways to educate her daughter abroad. “We are very afraid of the children's future,” she said. “We can't even imagine when this crisis will end.”
Chellappah fears the interruption will mean some of the 4.2 million children in education will drop out altogether. “Closing schools not only locks children out of education, but often also robs them of the only decent [and free] meal they get each day,” he said in a statement. “We’re at risk of taking a huge step backwards on child nutrition and education in Sri Lanka, which would be an absolute tragedy.”
A fledgling emergency response
Locally, communities and NGOs are rallying to organise fundraisers, public kitchens, and food donation programmes.
So far, the international humanitarian response has centred around cash assistance and food packages. Chellappah said Save the Children is working with USAID to provide cash assistance to low-income families and is in negotiations with WFP to provide more food items to an existing school feeding programme.
WFP has launched its own emergency response and is supporting the continuance of what was a government-led nutrition programme to offer Thriposha – a nutrient-rich food supplement – to pregnant women and children, while also providing cash or voucher assistance to one million people.
This is all part of the Humanitarian Needs and Priorities Plan, launched by the UN in June, which aims to generate $47.2 million to help 1.7 million people by September. The plan is to focus on “healthcare and essential medicines, food and agriculture, including targeted nutrition services, safe drinking water; emergency livelihoods; and protection”.
“There should be a lot of Western interest to come in and support this country.”
At the same time, the IFRC, which is supporting the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, has launched an emergency appeal for 28 million Swiss francs to help 500,000 people. It calls for international support to help “avoid the worst”. So far, it has distributed over 10,000 dry ration food packs, 4,000 cash grants, and 5,000 school packs, while working with the Ministry of Health to tackle gaps in essential medicines.
Chellappah suggested a donor conference might encourage other countries to support Sri Lanka more. Bangladesh, India, Japan, and China are among those that have already offered either financial support or food, and the G7 has said it will help in securing debt relief while also offering $20 million in assistance. “There should be a lot of Western interest to come in and support this country,” he said.
But the response needs to be more than just an economic one, Perera said. An IMF bailout to facilitate longer-term economic recovery is months away and, until then, “we need to help these people… to meet their basic needs,” he said. “Although we might not see this like in Yemen, Syria, or Libya – with conflict and a lot of needs – there are still a lot of people who are suffering.”
Madushanka hopes life will return to normal soon, but he believes that’s unlikely to be the case. “As far as I know, it will take another two or three years to build up the country,” he said. “But most of the people, including me, have no idea how this will end. We are struggling, and we are fighting.”
(*An earlier version contained the incorrect name and title of the Save the Children spokesperson. Updated on 28 July 2022.)
Edited by Abby Seiff.