52-year-old Newton Gunathileka has never worked so hard – and earned so little.
Gunathileka, from the Sri Lankan village of Periyakulam, in the North Western Puttalam District, is among hundreds of thousands of rural Sri Lankans who have borne the brunt of the worst drought in four decades. He has not seen any substantial rains on his farm in at least a year and has lost two harvests, resulting in financial loss and growing debts. He has now abandoned his two acres of rice paddy land and spends his time looking – mainly unsuccessfully - for other work in 40 degree Celsius heat.
"There is no work. Everyone, big or small, has lost out to the drought," he said. Gunathileka said his family was now eating some of the rice that he had put away to use as seed for the next growing season. "For the next month or two we are okay with rice, but we have been limiting eating meat, eggs, and vegetables we buy from outside. The other big problem I have is my children's higher education. If we can't get a harvest at least by the end of the year both of them will have to work," he said. His daughter is taking a course in secretarial work while the son is getting ready to sit university entrance exams. The family now survives on about Rs 800 ($5) or less a day, and both Gunathileka and his wife earn cash doing whatever work they can find. Gunathileka said that he was thinking of using the deeds to his paddy rice land as collateral and seeking a small loan from local money lenders. "The banks will not lend because I can't show any income. But if I don't get to pay back the money lenders, I lose my land," he said. Gunathileka and his wife look up to the sky each time they step out looking for work. "All we see are clear skies. All we want to see are dark clouds over the horizon," he said.
According to data by the United Nations, there are hundreds of thousands of households like Gunathileka's facing serious food security issues in Sri Lanka. With rice production for 2017 expected to be the lowest in a decade, "over 300,000 households (around 1.2 million people) are estimated to be food insecure, with many households limiting their food intake and in some cases eating just one meal a day," the United Nations said. The worst affected areas are the North Western, North Central, Northern and South Eastern Provinces that rely heavily on agriculture. The U.N report also said that household debt was rising due to the drought. A World Food Programme survey released in August said that debts of surveyed families had risen by 50 percent in the last year. Households reported that the amount of money owed in formal loans has not increased, indicating that families are turning to informal lenders for credit. The World Food Programme said in its August report that of 81,000 families surveyed in the 10 worst-hit districts, only 22 percent had access to government relief by early August.