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FOR R. Daranagama, a 70-year-old rice farmer, the past year ranks among the most difficult of his life.
As Sri Lanka battles its worst economic crisis in decades, Daranagama has barely touched his four-acre field this season. Without access to fertiliser, he and other farmers expect crop yields to slump, threatening food supplies across a nation already pushed to the brink.
“I do not know what the harvest will be,” said Daranagama, who grows rice in the coastal district of Gampaha. “I have never seen a situation like this.”
Fears of a hunger crisis are rising in Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island south of India. Shortages of items like flour and milk powder are widespread.
Food inflation hovers around 60%. Faced with exorbitant costs, many farmers like Daranagama have skipped rice cultivation entirely this season. It’s a scary turnaround for a middle-income country that once faced no problems feeding a population of 22 million people.
Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown, the most dire since the nation achieved independence from the British in 1948, has taken a severe toll on the agriculture sector.
Rice production in the last harvest season had already plunged 40% to 50%. Now, seed and fertiliser scarcities could shrink crop yields by as much as 50% this year, according to Mahinda Amaraweera, the agriculture minister.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has warned that curbing hunger is one of Sri Lanka’s biggest challenges over the next few months, prompting people with means to start stockpiling supplies. The United Nations estimates that almost a quarter of the population already require food assistance.
Jayavardhana Pridarshani, a mother of four who lives in Hambantota, a stronghold of the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty, said her family used to eat fish or eggs daily. These days, they can only afford to have those items once a month.
She said schools have stopped serving meals to students and fishermen rarely go out to sea because of fuel shortages, even though there’s an abundance of fish.
“Children here, including mine, are suffering from fatigue and weakness,” she said, adding that a doctor had warned that those were symptoms of protein deficiency.
The problem echoes across Sri Lanka. Sajith Premadasa, leader of the political opposition, said an estimated 15% of children in the country are “wasting.” That term refers to underweight children whose immune systems are weak, leaving them vulnerable to developmental delays, disease and even death. At the Lady Ridgeway hospital in Colombo, the country’s largest for children, about 20% of patients suffer from malnutrition due to the ongoing crisis, local media reported. Poor nutrition carries a significant economic burden in terms of higher health care costs and reduced productivity.