Sri Lanka’s worst drought in 40 years will leave lasting impact

Dry river bed in Sri Lanka (Credit: Bioversity International / S.Landersz / Flickr)

Sri Lanka is in the midst of its worst drought in decades. Rain shortages since October have created a humanitarian and economic crisis that is now affecting more than 1.2 million people. More than 900,000 people are in “urgent need of food assistance,” while 80,000 of them may need “urgent life-saving support,” according to a March 7 draft assessment acquired by IRIN.

The drought has affected all but two of the country’s 25 districts in all nine provinces, as well as all aspects of life. It highlights the reverberating consequences of disasters, but the biggest issue at the moment is the shortage of Sri Lanka’s water-intensive staple crop – rice.

“The biggest harvest of the year has just finished, and it’s been a massive failure for most farmers living in areas crippled by the drought,” Chris McIvor, country director for Save the Children in Sri Lanka, said in a press release.

In fact, the harvest was the worst in 40 years, down 63 percent from the average. The drought had damaged land so badly, according to the World Food Program, that by November farmers had cultivated only 35 percent of the country’s rice paddies.

“The nation’s food supply has taken a huge hit, which in turn has caused prices to rise,” McIvor said. “As a result, many of the poorest families are struggling to feed their children, often choosing to eat fewer and smaller meals, and cut down on nutritious foods like meat and vegetables.”

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According to Save the Children, nearly a third of children and a quarter of women in Sri Lanka already suffer from malnutrition, even when there is no significant food shortage. Aid groups are worried that in order to cope, families may turn to negative reprieves with long-term consequences, such as pulling their children out of school or selling assets.

Meanwhile, the government has increased food and water aid from neighboring countries and increased food imports. However, in order to encourage imports, the government has lowered import taxes to a third of what it was – from 15 to 5 rupees per kilo. This adds stress to the country’s already diminishing foreign reserves.

Additionally, the government has put a price cap on rice to prevent obscene inflation like Venezuela is experiencing with its food shortage. Although that is good for the poor, rice millers have refused to sell at the set prices causing significant political friction. In February, the government’s price control agency raided shops around the country and will be taking 52 shop owners to court. Economists warn of a burgeoning black market, but also say that imports should help offset shortages caused by domestic millers refusing to sell.

Besides the food shortage, water tanks are also drying out and becoming contaminated from sitting stagnant for too long, increasing risk of disease. The lack of water is inhibiting electricity generation as well, since Sri Lanka is largely hydro-powered. Power plants are only producing a third of the necessary output.

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Even the suffering wildlife pose a risk to people, with reports of wild elephants breaking down electric fences around villages to find food and water.

Although normal rains are expected to return at the end of March or April, the consequences of the drought will not wash away. According to IRIN, only 10 percent of farmers affected by the drought were able to produce seeds for the next growing season, compared to the usual 80 percent.

The country’s overall economic outlook does not appear rosy, either. Despite the finance minister’s insistence that they already factored the drought into the budget and 6 percent growth estimate, Moody’s warned of the “negative credit effect of the drought” and assigned Sri Lanka a B1 credit rating with negative outlook.

In the meantime, the government, U.N. and relief organizations are providing drinking water, emergency supplies, unconditional cash grants and a government-run “cash for work” program to help people cope until the next disaster. Based on past events, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned last week that Sri Lanka faces a high risk of tsunami and flooding in 2017.a

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.