The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sri Lanka shuts down, families struggle for food as crisis deepens

People on Monday demand the release of protesters arrested in Colombo amid Sri Lanka's economic crisis. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

NEW DELHI — Schools and government offices in Sri Lanka’s major cities were shut Monday for at least a week as a severe fuel shortage nearly brought the country to a standstill, the latest chapter in a slow-moving economic crisis that has led to protests, political turmoil and mounting food insecurity.

Many streets in the normally bustling capital, Colombo, were largely deserted. Armed forces stood guard at gas stations as lines of vehicles extended for miles. The hours-long waits have led to tense standoffs and violent confrontations in recent days between frustrated Sri Lankans and security forces.

In a blunt statement, the energy minister asked the public to refrain from lining up for gasoline for the next three days. Authorities announced last week that government workers, barring those in essential fields such as health care, would work from home given the “current fuel shortage and issues in transport facilities.”

Chandima Madusanka, an auto rickshaw driver in Colombo, said he waited two days to get seven liters (less than two gallons) of gasoline, which he estimated would last only a day. He said it was becoming impossible to feed his family.

“How can we live like this?” he asked angrily.

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Crucial talks between the Sri Lankan government and the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package are being held in Colombo this week. In April, the country suspended payments on its foreign debt, which stands at $51 billion.

The talks are an important first step in averting economic ruin, experts said, but are only a starting point. “Even with an IMF program, the money from the loans will not be enough to restore everything that is needed to put Sri Lanka in a turnaround situation,” said Lutz Röhmeyer of Capitulum Asset Management, a German investment firm.

Life has become a daily struggle for many in this island nation of 23 million, as it endures its worst economic crisis in decades. Food inflation reached 57 percent last month, and a recent survey by the World Food Program conducted in 17 of 25 districts found that most families are feeling the effects of hunger.

The “big red flags” were found among the poor, who had resorted to “skipping meals, eating much smaller meals or buying cheaper food that is not nutritious,” said Anthea Webb, WFP’s deputy regional director for Asia and the Pacific.

“We have to rely on handouts, and even those are not as frequent now,” said Lalitha Jayasundara, 58, who cleans roads and collects garbage in Colombo. “Surviving each day is a battle.”

Public anger over economic mismanagement has spilled out onto the streets. Months-long protests resulted in the May resignation of the prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but his brother Gotabaya continues to serve as president.

Sri Lanka’s neighbors are lending a helping hand: India has sent food, fuel and medicine, while Australia announced $50 million in assistance, including food and health services.

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But a lack of foreign reserves and high global food prices have made it difficult for the government to import essential items, while runaway inflation and widespread unemployment mean most families can’t afford what’s on the shelves.

Akalanka Punchihewa lost his food delivery job recently after the restaurant he worked for shut down. The 32-year-old has a young child and an ailing parent but no way to provide for them.

“We cook with firewood and had to stop giving milk to our child,” he said. “We just can’t afford these prices.”

Government programs have also been hit. The federal nutrition program for women was suspended recently because of a lack of resources. In an effort to fill the gap, WFP started a food voucher program for pregnant women in Colombo and launched a crowdfunding campaign for meals.

“Between now and the end of the year, about 3 million are going to need [WFP’s] emergency food assistance,” Webb said. “It is a lot for a country this size. There is no time to lose.”

Farisz reported from Colombo.