Sri Lanka closes schools and offices as it’s running out of fuel

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NEW DELHI – Schools and government offices in major cities across Sri Lanka were closed Monday for at least a week as a severe fuel shortage nearly brought the country to a standstill, the latest chapter in a slow-running economic crisis that has led to protests, political unrest and growing food insecurity.

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

In a blunt statement, the Minister for Energy asked the public to refrain from queuing for petrol for the next three days. Authorities announced last week that government employees, except those working in essential areas such as health care, would work from home given the “current fuel shortage and problems at transportation”.

Chandima Madusanka, a rickshaw driver in Colombo, said he waited two days to get seven liters (less than two gallons) of gasoline, which he said would only last a day. He said it was getting 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 are being held in Colombo this week. In April, the country suspended payments on its external debt, which stands at $51 billion.

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

Life has become a daily struggle for many in the island nation of 23 million as it endures its worst economic crisis in decades. Food inflation reached 57% last month, and a recent investigation carried out by the World Food Program in 17 out of 25 districts revealed 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 foods that are not nutritious”, said Anthea Webb, regional director WFP Deputy for Asia and the Pacific.

“We have to rely on donations, and even those are not so frequent now,” said Lalitha Jayasundara, 58, who cleans roads and collects trash in Colombo. “To survive every day is a struggle.”

Public anger over economic mismanagement has spilled onto the streets. Month-long protests led to the resignation in May of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, but his brother Gotabaya continues to hold the presidency.

Sri Lanka’s neighbors lend a hand: India sent food, fuel and medicine, while Australia announced $50 million in aidincluding food and health services.

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But a lack of foreign exchange reserves and high global food prices have made it difficult for the government to import essential items, while soaring inflation and widespread unemployment mean most families cannot afford what is on the shelves.

Akalanka Punchihewa recently lost his job as a food delivery boy after the restaurant he worked for closed. The 32-year-old has a young child and a sick parent but no way to support them.

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

Government programs have also been affected. The federal women’s nutrition program was suspended recently due to a lack of resources. In an effort to fill the void, WFP launched a food stamp program for pregnant women in Colombo and launched a crowdfunding campaign for meals.

“By the end of the year, about 3 million will need [the WFP’s] emergency food aid,” Webb said. “It’s a lot for a country of this size. There’s no time to lose.”

Farisz reported from Colombo.

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