Humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka are preparing for the fallout as increasing food prices and shortages put vulnerable populations at risk of malnutrition and leave many families no longer able to afford essentials such as medical care and school tuition.
The global food crisis, referred to by World Food Programme (WFP) officials as "the silent tsunami" during a summit in London on 22 April, is hitting home.
Munniandy Muttur, a janitor in the capital Colombo, told IRIN: "I earn only Rs350 [US$3.20] per day, and that amount is not enough if we try to eat well. If I or my wife fall sick, we can't even think of private hospital. God willing, we will either not fall sick, or just fall dead, that is better."
The 66-year-old man said he and his wife had cut down on meat and survived as best they could. "Everything is getting expensive, but we are not getting paid more."
Relief agencies warn that vulnerable communities will increasingly cut back on essentials just to get by.
"Poor communities are surviving from one day to another - the rise in food prices means the poor families are living in a 'survival mode', planning for their next meal, rather than making and acting on long-term plans for them and their children," Nayomi Kannangara, Child Protection Program Manager with Christian Children's Fund in Sri Lanka, told IRIN.
Kannangara warned that children's education and healthcare may be neglected first.
"Some families may not be able to afford the bus fare to the hospital where the medical care is free and may not be able to purchase the drugs that are not available through the free clinics," she said. "Symptoms are neglected and less attention is paid to non-critical medical needs."
Rice stocks have dwindled since the government imposed price controls on 17 April. In addition, the World Food Programme (WFP) has temporarily suspended its work for food project in the war-torn northeast due to a lack of resources. WFP country director Mohamed Salaheen told IRIN the programme had been benefiting 175,000 people.
"We held discussions with the government and agreed on what our priorities are," he said. "Given the resources we have, we cannot take care of everything." The suspension will remain in force until new donor commitments allow the WFP to recommence it.
The WFP in Sri Lanka is facing increasing budgetary restrictions given that food prices have shot up by more than 50 percent in the past year and the agency is facing a 40 percent funding shortfall.
"We need an additional US$35 million to meet the funding requirements that were set on older prices, but now they have sky-rocketed," the WFP country director said.
The food price increases have been exacerbated by a 12.5 percent shortfall in domestic rice supply, the staple food of the islanders, according to government statistics.
The government Census and Statistics Department recorded that average annual inflation rose by 16.8 percent in March 2008. A monthly 1.5 percent rise in the Colombo consumer price index (CCPI) was due to escalating food prices.
Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
|Children dependent on food aid are feeling the effects of food assistance cutbacks|
"The increase in the CCPI for March 2008 is mainly due to an increase in prices of rice, fresh milk, condensed milk, Lactogen [baby food], tea, red onions, coconut oil, butter, jam, some varieties of fresh fish, dried fish, coconuts, potatoes and some varieties of vegetables," it said in its latest CCPI report.
Agencies working with vulnerable populations have already begun to factor in the rising prices into their estimates.
"We are in discussions with WFP on whether to increase the monthly amount provided to poor families," Meneka Calyanaratne, chief of communications for Save the Children UK in Sri Lanka, told IRIN. Such assistance, while important, is marginal in terms of numbers, compared with the WFP programme that has been feeding more than a million people. "It will all depend on what the assessments of WFP and other UN agencies are, but there is a very real likelihood that the individual grants will go up."
Save the Children provides Rs1,600 (approx $16) per month for 2,672 poor families countrywide.
Calyanaratne also said rising food prices may force older children in poorer families to leave school for lack of funds. "When families find it hard to make ends meet," she said, "they tend to look for easy avenues for more income; sending children to work is one of the easiest."
Sri Lankans on average spend 37.6 percent of their monthly expenditure on food, according to the latest Census and Statistics Department data, with vulnerable families spending as much as 70 percent.