Over a 100,000 families in 11 districts, primarily from the agrarian areas of Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Mannar and Mullaitivu, are facing severe water shortages as drought returns to the region. One result of repeated droughts is food insecurity as indebtedness grows in these areas and people struggle to make ends meet.
Sri Lanka was ranked 66th in the recent Food Security Global Index and was grouped among countries with “good performance” with an overall score of 53 averaged over three core issues – affordability (54.8), availability (52.8), and quality and safety (49.5). As per the Index compiled by The Economist, in South Asia, India ranked 74th while Pakistan was placed 77th. Nepal ranked 81st in the index and Bangladesh ranked the lowest at 89th.
The definition of food security includes its multi-dimensional nature and encapsulates food access, availability, food use, and stability. Availability is determined by food supply, primarily at the national level. However, the perception on what food security means is vague in Sri Lanka as often, national level food security is generally confused with food self-sufficiency.
A country need not achieve self-sufficiency in food to achieve food security, because, national food security is attained when a country produces adequate food for its people or has the capacity to import its food requirements by its export earnings or a combination of both. Food imports, even though they are usually frowned upon, may actually provide food at a cheaper rate to households, thereby increasing food security.
Accessibility depends on the individual’s capacity to purchase food at the household level, and utilisation depends on intra-household distribution of food and the nutritious use of food by the individual. The fourth dimension of food security, i.e., food stability, ensures the access to food at all times and covers the physiological, economic, social or political vulnerabilities of the population to food security. This is less universal in Sri Lanka.
Ironically, in Sri Lanka, it is farmer families that are also most food vulnerable. As seen last year when the worst drought in 40 years hit and wiped out half the harvest, over a million farmer families around the country became food insecure, some forced to reduce food intake to one meal a day. This is partly because the agriculture industry, despite only contributing about 9% of GDP, nonetheless employs about 27% of the labour force and has little capacity to save for when times are hard. The sector also has a large number of women workers, usually at informal level, making it harder for them to absorb market shocks.
However, this does not mean that food insecurity is limited to just the rural poor. Pockets of urban communities also struggle because access is hard for them. However, it is more economic issues, particularly inflation, that have a telling impact on these communities. Evidence also indicates that rather than harping on self-sufficiency, Sri Lanka stands to gain more by focusing on building a robust economy based on exports and investment to be able to afford to feed its population.
Cost of living was a major factor in the local government elections and this will only get worse if timely policies are not implemented to protect people and allow them equitable access to essential goods and services. Developing the agriculture sector is one of the fastest ways to increase sustainable development in Sri Lanka and improve food security at the same time.