1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Sri Lanka

Food insecurity a growing problem

An internally displaced family in Batticaloa District shares a meal.
(Amantha Perera/IRIN)

A poor rice harvest, rising global food prices and the enduring conflict are increasing food insecurity for hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, UN food experts have warned.

Only half the country’s 20 million people are receiving the minimum daily calorie intake of 2,030, according to the latest poverty assessments compiled by the government.

“An average poor person in Sri Lanka receives only 1,696 kcal per day while a non-poor person receives 2,194 kcal,” according to the Department of Census and Statistics, in a report entitled Poverty Indicators - Household Income and Expenditure Survey - 2006/07, released in March 2008.

Officials at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) told IRIN that high levels of under-nourishment prevail, especially in rural areas and those regions in the north and east affected by more than 25 years of conflict.

“The highest rates of under-nourishment are in the north and east as well as parts of the dry zone towards the centre of the island,” Jean-Yves Lequime, the deputy head of WFP in Sri Lanka, said.

“Our information shows that these areas are some of the poorest on the island, with very high under-nutrition rates, poor education levels and poor sanitation, all of which contribute to under-nutrition,” Lequime said.

Poverty and high energy requirements were also common in the rural agrarian areas, Gordon Weiss, chief of communications at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Colombo, the capital, told IRIN. “Especially in the agricultural areas, they engage with heavy work, so they need more calories. Most of the agricultural-based areas are considered poor areas.”

Child nutrition

“Sri Lanka has a significantly higher child underweight rate than would be expected on the basis of its [annual] per capita GDP [of US$1,599],” Lequime said. “Indeed, Sri Lanka has a child underweight rate that may be three times as high as what would be expected from a country with Sri Lanka's level of infant mortality.”

UNICEF said 14 percent of children under five in Sri Lanka showed signs of wasting (acute underweight) and stunting (chronic underweight) while 29 percent of children younger than five were underweight for their age.

Photo: OCHA/Sri Lanka
UNICEF said 14 percent of children under five in Sri Lanka showed signs of wasting (acute underweight) and stunting (chronic underweight) while 29 percent of children younger than five were underweight for their age

However, districts that have been affected by conflict record even higher rates, according to UNICEF’s Weiss.

WFP said the continuing conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had also raised concerns regarding overall food security and nutrition levels in the conflict zone.

“Food insecurity levels are high in areas affected by the conflict, according to the Integrated Food Security and Humanitarian Phase Classification conducted by WFP in April 2007,” Lequime said. “Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee, Mannar and parts of Vavuniya [districts] are classified as acute food and livelihood crises. Jaffna and Batticaloa are classified as a humanitarian emergency.”

There are also fears that national nutritional levels will deteriorate further due to rising food prices caused by inflation running at a record high of 17.5 percent, the WFP official said.

“Heavy unseasonal rainfall over much of Sri Lanka, including the conflict-affected areas, has destroyed much of the main ‘Maha’ rice harvest, which when combined with global price rises and food shortages may indicate major problems for the future,” according to Lequime.


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

Share this article
Join the discussion

Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.

We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.

Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian. 

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.