By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, March 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The worst drought in five years has pushed 900,000 people in Sri Lanka into "acute food insecurity", the World Food Programme (WFP) says.
An unpublished survey conducted by government agencies and relief organisations in February found that both food insecurity and debt were rising sharply among families hit by drought, the WFP office in Sri Lanka confirmed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The country's rice harvest could be the worst in 40 years, charity Save the Children predicted. The just-completed harvest was 63 percent below normal, it said.
The survey found that over one third of the drought-affected households had seen their income drop by half since September and 60 percent of the households surveyed were in debt.
The average amount of debt was about 180,000 Sri Lankan rupees, or $1,200, WFP said.
The survey findings are expected to be formally released later this month.
Sri Lanka's government said over 1.2 million people have been affected by the country's current drought, which began last November and continues despite some occasional rainfall over the last two months.
Save the Children estimates that over 600,000 of those affected – two thirds of the total – are children.
The Western and Northern Provinces have been worst hit, with over 400,000 people struggling with drought in each province.
RICE HARVEST HALVED
Government and WFP assessments suggest Sri Lanka's 2017 rice harvest could be less than half the 3 million metric tons recorded last year.
According to WFP assessments the island needs 2.3 million metric tons of rice for annual consumption but the overall 2017 rice harvest is projected to yield just 1.44 metric tons.
The government has already taken steps to increase rice imports to stave off shortages, Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa said.
"We have a shortfall in the rice harvest. We have been taking action to prevent any shortfalls and will allow for tax-free rice imports until the harvest recovers," he said.
Worst-affected by the drought have been farmers and those relying on agricultural work for income. The joint WFP and government survey indicated that one out of five farmers and one out of four farm labourers is now classified as food insecure in the drought region.
Preliminary data in the survey also indicated that female-headed households in drought areas were faring worse than others, with almost 20 percent reporting "poor" to "borderline" ability to access enough food as a result of the drought.
Yapa said that the government was devising a plan to help those affected and "we will begin cash assistance very soon".
The initial plan is to provide 500,000 persons with cash assistance, he said. The government has so far set aside 8 billion rupees ($52 million) for cash-for-work programmes in drought-hit areas.
Over 50 million rupees ($300,000) has been allocated to distribute water to affected populations in 22 of the island's 25 districts, he said.
The drought is expected to continue into April, according to seasonal forecasting by the Meteorological Department.
"The big rains will come with the next monsoon", which is expected to arrive in late May, said Lalith Chandrapala, director general of the Meteorological Department.
(Reporting by Amantha Perera; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)