When heavy fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) erupted at several locations on the Jaffna peninsula in August 2006, it led to the closure of the A9 highway. The single road into the area, the A9, was an economic and humanitarian lifeline for Jaffna’s residents. Everything from food, basic commodities, pharmaceuticals, petroleum, even reconstruction materials, was soon in short supply.
The shortages have had a serious impact on all economic activity throughout Jaffna and on the nutrition of residents and displaced persons alike, according to the humanitarian community.
Prior to the road closure, say district officials, 150 to 180 trucks a day plied the road to Jaffna bringing goods to the district’s 650,000 residents, some 40,000 of whom are currently displaced by the fighting. While transport ships, supplemented by cargo flights, have tried their best to keep up with Jaffna’s essential import requirements, most months it has been challenging to meet the district government’s targets.
According to a situation report from the Jaffna District Secretariat in early December 2006, bad weather and logistical bottlenecks at Jaffna’s ports were reducing the volume of imports. In November, according to the report, there were significant shortfalls in Jaffna’s monthly import requirements. Only about 60 percent of all food targeted to arrive could be delivered and only 40 percent of medical supplies. No fertilizer, poultry or livestock arrived. In recent months, with increased ship arrivals and better logistics, the overall supply situation has improved somewhat and market prices have declined.
Nonetheless, since August 2006, two of Jaffna’s economic mainstays, fishing and agriculture, have been particularly hard hit with substantial losses in employment, productivity and income, according to the District Secretariat.
The fishing industry was damaged largely due to strict security provisions on fishing - curtailing it completely in some areas of the Jaffna coast, and severely limiting it in others.
Agriculture hit by road closure
As for agriculture, one of two principal growing seasons in Sri Lanka, the ‘maha’, which runs from September to January in Jaffna, experienced a sharp decline in production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), although precise figures are unknown. The principal reason for the drop in productivity, according to FAO, was a lack of fertilizer, seeds and other inputs, including fuel for tractors, because of the A9 closure, and the inability of cash-short farmers to hire the labour they needed. A winter drought made matters worse.
The livestock industry has suffered as well. Many animals were killed during the 2006 conflict. Subsequently many farmers, with savings depleted, were forced to sell off their livestock to make ends meet.
UN project launched in December 2006
According to Rita Ricciardi, FAO area emergency and rehabilitation coordinator in Sri Lanka, FAO responded to the crisis in late December with the launch of a US$375,000 project, funded by the OCHA-managed Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), to help revive a segment of Jaffna agriculture. Working with the Department of Agriculture (DoA) and the Department of Animal Production and Health (DAPH), the project targets Jaffna farmers and internally displaced families hosted by them to help boost crop production.
A principal goal of the project, according to FAO, is to provide this community with a better supply of vitamin-rich vegetables and other crops and to enable them, if surpluses are available, to earn some income through crop sales in the market. A total of 4,560 Jaffna families were selected by the DOA , with the assistance of NGO implementing partners, CARE, Caritas and Sewalanka.
In early January 2007, according to Ricciardi, FAO started flying in agricultural inputs by UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flights. Each family received either a mixed vegetable seed kit or one for other field crops. The seeds were distributed in time for the Jaffna mid-season planting in February and also for the ‘yala’ season that begins this month and runs through August. In all, 12 metric tonnes of green gram, cowpea, black gram, sesame and ground nut seeds were distributed as well as 530kg of vegetable seeds.
All the farmers were also given agricultural training by the Department of Agriculture and by CARE to ensure good cultivation and high yields; and some 600 participants, mainly women, were trained in sound nutritional and food processing practices.
Livestock medicines, vaccines
Boosting agricultural productivity was not the only goal under the FAO-led project. The Department of Animal Production and Health was provided by FAO with livestock medicines and vaccines to treat some 10,000 livestock in order to increase milk production, as milk was in short supply in the Jaffna markets. Solar powered refrigerators were also given to store the drugs in. DAPH veterinary staff are currently in the process of vaccinating the livestock.
Another component of the agriculture project - one instigated at the request of Jaffna residents - was support to restock the poultry population. The number of layers and broilers in the district had seriously declined, leading to a shortage of eggs and chickens in the market, according to FAO. Many residents and internally displaced families who were out of work and economically pinched sold off their birds in order to purchase essentials. In addition, says FAO’s Ricciardi, “there is a huge demand for poultry because fishing has been banned.”
FAO has helped rehabilitate in Jaffna a large capacity incubator at the Department of Animal Production and Health (DAPH) in which some 4,000 eggs, provided by World Vision Sri Lanka from Colombo, will soon be hatched. Half the resulting chicks will be given to Jaffna residents and IDPs for back-yard poultry production. The rest will be used by DAPH to increase both chick production and egg production for consumption.
While the Jaffna agricultural, livestock and poultry project is small-scale in terms of the overall needs of Jaffna residents and the IDP community, Ricciardi says: “It’s an important model project that can be duplicated in other conflict areas to both increase nutritional status and family income.”
Bridging food gap remains a challenge
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions