In two northern districts of Sri Lanka, now slowly recovering from decades of conflict, almost seven out of 10 households are “food insecure”, according to a recent survey.
Of the 300 households interviewed over two days in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts in August 2013, half reported selling jewellery to cope with falling income and rising debt.
Food cost 10 to 30 percent more in local markets in the two surveyed districts than in the Northern Province’s central markets, which have better road access. This is on top of an estimated 12 percent increase in the average cost of food nationwide.
While there is still enough food in the smaller number of villages surveyed, fewer people can afford it, said Kathy Derore, head of the programme unit at World Food Programme (WFP) in Sri Lanka.
The situation has worsened since 2012, when a more comprehensive assessment in late March 2012 in Northern and Eastern Provinces found that 44 percent of the population could not get adequate, nutritious food.
Some households have not recovered from a year-long drought that began in late 2011 and ended abruptly in December 2012, when fatal flooding affected more than 400,000 people, Derore told IRIN.
Although more than half of the families received some form of drought aid, it was still “inadequate” said Derore. In response to WFP’s appeal earlier this year for $2.6 million to provide three months of aid to 60,000 flood survivors, no donors responded and no distributions were made.
A lack of cultivable land since the back-to-back disasters, combined with poor irrigation and the rising cost of pesticides and fertilizers, has hit farming households hard, according to the still unpublished August survey by WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Vision, Save the Children, the Ministry of Economic Development and the quasi-governmental Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (HARTI).
“Borrowing to afford food for the day is different than borrowing [to purchase] new assets,” Derore pointed out.
The government’s most recent Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey, which analysed income sources by district in 2011, reported that 32 percent of the labour force in Vavuniya (about 18,000 people) and 55 percent in Mullaitivu (more than 12,000 workers) depended on agriculture for their livelihood. Overall, an average 40 percent of Northern Province’s one-million population survive from agriculture.
Liyanapathirana Rupasena, assistant director of research at HARTI, told IRIN that debt can easily multiply. “Farmers will also mortgage plots to raise money to fund harvests. In rural areas these loans are very rarely raised from banks, but from area money lenders, who will lend at high rates and with very high collateral.”
Wijerathane Thenakoon, 47, a farmer from Anuradhapura District in North Central Province, (where nearly 245,000 workers depended on agriculture for most their income in 2011) said he and his wife are struggling.
He has lost two harvests on his 0.4-hectare plot in the last 20 months. He is now in debt by nearly US$1,400 and estimates his current paddy harvest will earn him $1,200. “If I lose this harvest, I will have to sell off my paddy plot.” He has borrowed money from a local lender, who kept his land deed as collateral.
“I have tried working as a labourer at construction sites, and as a helper at the Anuradhapura main market, where I can earn about [$7-$11] a day. But I can’t do that every day and can only go do such work in the time between harvests and the next planting, which is about a month, [at most a] month and half.”
Many families are skipping meals, eating less healthy foods and skimming from savings, which may mean higher malnutrition rates in the next six months, said WFP’s Derore.
In a 2012 national nutrition survey, malnutrition rates for Vavuniya and Mullaitivu districts were already at what health workers considered an emergency level. Nearly 22 percent of children aged five, and 28 percent of children younger than five years in each district had signs of “wasting” (when their weight is too low for their height).
Almost one out of every five children in each district (19.9 percent for Vavuniya and 17.6 percent for Mullaitivu) were too short for their age, known as “stunting”, which indicates a lack of life-saving nutrients.
Whether nutrition improves will partly depend on how good the next harvest is, Derore said.
In July FAO estimated a record paddy harvest of 4.1 million tons for the country in 2013, but noted that food insecurity continued for “vulnerable” groups.