Food convoys for thousands of displaced in Sri Lanka’s north remain suspended after more than a month, despite rising concerns over a growing food crisis.
“The security situation since 16 January has not been conducive for food convoys to go in,” Adnan Khan, country representative for the World Food Programme [WFP] said in Colombo, citing concerns over small arms fire and possible landmines en route.
Since the middle of September, the Vanni (which includes parts of Kilinochchi and Mulaithivu districts, about 300 km north of the capital) has been a “no-go” area after security concerns by the government prompted the relocation of aid operations to the northern town of Vavuniya, within government-held territory.
Earlier this month, the UN food agency warned that the entire population of the Vanni faced a food crisis.
“Food assistance is urgently needed for those still trapped in the conflict zone,” Khan told IRIN. “The resumption of convoys will only be possible if there is a lull in the conflict, but right now that’s not happening.”
According to the UN, tens of thousands of civilians remain in the Vanni after heavy fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who have been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.
WFP began food convoys to the Vanni on 2 October after its relocation from Kilinochchi in the Vanni.
A total of 11 WFP convoys comprising up to 60 trucks at a time continued until 16 January, when they were suspended following violent clashes that resulted in convoy personnel being trapped in the Vanni for almost a week.
An additional convoy carrying WFP food, but belonging to the government, was dispatched on 28 January.
Altogether 8,400MT of food assistance was distributed, including about 800MT of food that WFP procured locally.
Key to the overall operation was the government, according to Khan, as well as other stakeholders, including the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), which negotiated with the government forces and the LTTE for safe passage of the convoys into the conflict zone.
“There were a lot of parties involved in making the convoys happen,” the WFP official said.
As WFP and others had withdrawn from the Vanni, government collaboration was particularly important in terms of security clearance, as well as the downstream distribution of the food to beneficiaries, he added.
“We have to find an alternative route to provide food for the internally displaced people since road transportation is impossible,” S Divaratna, the commissioner-general for essential services, said in Colombo, according to the Defence Ministry.
On 18 February, the government sent 40MT of food assistance by ship to civilians sheltering along the north-eastern coast near Mullaitivu.
Photo: WFP/Sri Lanka
|Tens of thousands of conflict-displaced civilians remain trapped in the Vanni|
But this is just a fraction of what is needed.
The UN and other relief agencies believe up to 200,000 are still trapped in the Vanni, while the government estimates half that number.
“The question of sufficiency is directly linked to the question of numbers,” Khan said.
According to WFP calculations, 40MT can only feed about 11,500 people for a week.
WFP sent 10MT of wheat flour by ship under the ICRC flag on 20 February and is in negotiations with the government on regular shipments via government-arranged ships.
WFP is also providing food assistance to some 35,000 ethnic Tamils who have fled to Vavuniya and are staying at 16 transit sites, primarily schools, in the area.
The government has asked WFP to be prepared for up to 50,000 displaced in Vavuniya; however, that number may be revisited.
“We need to be prepared together with the rest of the UN and NGO family to see how we can be of assistance,” Khan said.
An earlier government plan envisioned that up to 100,000 people may flee south in need of assistance.
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
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