On the Brink: How Food Security and Climate Change Contributes to Social Unrest in Sri Lanka

May 23, 2022 By Jack Berson

Food insecurity is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a product of and a cause of civil unrest that can drive political instability around the world, as seen in Sri Lanka today. Globally, middle- and low-income economies are tackling worrying levels of food insecurity. Today, 811 million people go to bed hungry every night. Continued supply chains disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine have exacerbated social, political, and economic challenges. These shocks are reverberating throughout the world. World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley sent a clear warning: “If we do not address the situation immediately… we will see famine, we will see destabilization of nations and we will see mass migration. If we don’t do something we are going to pay a mighty big price.”

History Repeats

While the compounding effects of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine are still unraveling, one small island country in South Asia is already confronting intense political unrest due to rising food prices and intensifying climate change. Sri Lanka, a country still recovering from a brutal 26-year-long civil war that ended in 2009, is in the midst of its worst economic crisis since it gained independence in 1948, threatening its already fragile democracy.

Sri Lanka’s food crisis is not new. After gaining independence in the mid-20th century, Sri Lanka was eager to reform its economy. With the support of the World Bank, Sri Lanka sought to make itself less dependent on imports by placing greater emphasis on agriculture. However, as foreign debt rose, the government targeted rice subsidies in a series of controversial austerity measures.

To cut spending, the government tripled the price of rationed rice, paving the way for the first people’s uprising in the country’s history. The 1953 Great Hartal was a mass semi-insurrectionary uprising, generated by the public’s dissatisfaction with the rising cost of rice and other goods, as well as general discontent with the ruling party. Workers went on strike and small businesses closed, forcing then-Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to resign, and marking a political turning point in the country.

Today’s Crisis

The foundation of today’s food crisis can be traced back to the government’s 2021 agriculture policy mandating a sudden shift to 100% organic fertilizer. With little training on how to transition to organic farming, rice production fell by 50% and the nation’s tea crop was devastated. This forced the government to import $450 million worth of rice as domestic prices surged and foreign reserves dwindled. Today, drained foreign currency reserves have resulted in the government’s inability to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to inflated food prices and acute food shortages.

The legacy of the Great Hartal is clear: protecting food security is a means to supporting political stability. Since late-March, tens of thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka have taken to the streets to demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign. With most of Sri Lanka’s cabinet stepping down from their posts in recent weeks, the government’s once-powerful coalition is in turmoil, as more than 40 lawmakers have defected from the ruling party in response to the unrest.

Economic mismanagement, declining tourism due to the pandemic, and staggering levels of foreign debt have driven both food inflation and overall inflation to 30% , plunging the Sri Lankan Rupee to the world’s worst performing currency. China’s predatory lending practices have suffocated Sri Lanka with more than $3 billion in debt. While talks are ongoing to refinance its debt, Beijing has used debt distress to advance its own economic interests within the country. As a result, the cost of everyday goods are soaring; the price of milk powder has tripled and the price of a kilogram of rice is up 400% in recent weeks.

As this political movement intensifies, the world is left wondering if this is Sri Lanka’s Arab Spring moment. Like the current crisis, the anti-government protests that spread across much of the Arab world in the 2010s were triggered in part by economic mismanagement and food scarcity. Although the long-term implications of these protests are still unraveling, it is clear that food prices have mobilized people.

Climate Change Worsens Its Crisis

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka had achieved upper-middle income status. By early-2022, however, half a million people had sunk back into poverty, downgrading its status to a lower-middle income country. This significantly impacts its ability to not only tackle growing food insecurity, but also to address other global challenges that exacerbate the current food crisis, like climate change. In low-and middle-income countries, like Sri Lanka, about 2.5 billion people depend on climate-sensitive activities like agriculture and fishing to make a living. However, 96% of disasters in the country are caused by changes in climate, as erratic flooding, cyclones, landslides, and droughts threaten the country’s commercial agriculture sector.

In Sri Lanka, fish make up about 50% of animal protein intake, three times the global average. Rising sea pollution threatens to devastate local fishing industries that employ nearly one million fishers around the country. Last year, a burning container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka brought waves of plastic waste and other dangerous chemicals to the country’s beaches. Creating an environmental disaster now considered to be the “worst beach pollution” in its history, the catastrophe forced families to face starvation as marine breeding grounds were destroyed and fishing was banned in affected areas.

Climate change also aggravates already fragile environments. As agricultural yields decline, local competition intensifies over limited natural resources. Extreme weather may also lead to mass migration and displacement, provoking historical ethnic tensions in the country.

However, climate sensitive agriculture can contribute to greater stability. A study conducted by the London School of Economics found that Sri Lankan farmers who adopted climate adjustment measures not only saw a positive impact on crop yields, but also received additional significant financial benefits – more than $25,000 per farmer per year – compared to farmers who did not implement these measures. A more resilient food system means greater food security and economic stability, decreasing the likelihood of political upheaval and social unrest.

Looking Ahead

Protests against Sri Lanka’s collapsing living standards have transformed into a nationwide uprising and the demand for political change has reinvigorated the legacy of the Great Hartal. Intense food insecurity has fueled social unrest, and COVID-19 plus climate change only worsens the effects of these compounding crises on Sri Lanka’s fragile post-war democracy. In early-May, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned due to continued unrest. Though this is a significant step, protests are likely to continue at least until President Gotabaya Rajapaksa steps down.

Nonetheless, recent financial support from the World Bank has provided a much-needed economic boost in the country. Stocks rallied after the World Bank agreed to provide Sri Lanka with a $600 million financial assistance package. Looking forward, Sri Lanka continues to turn to partners in Asia for additional financial support. As the United States has signaled its commitment to work bilaterally and with local partners to cultivate a new era of economic development within the country, there is hope that Sri Lanka is not alone in this crisis.