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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2966

Sri Lanka: Malnutrition rising in Jaffna, aid deliveries struggling

Colombo, 19 July, (IRIN): Nutrition surveys by the Sri Lankan government and international agencies show rising levels of acute malnutrition in the northern Jaffna district. Livelihoods and markets have been disrupted by conflict and displacement, the closure of a major highway, and security-related restrictions on farming and fishing. Food assistance for the internally displaced and other vulnerable groups has been in short supply for months.

The Jaffna District Government Agent, K. Ganesh, says 96,500 families, 51 percent of the Jaffna population, are farmers or farm labourers. Their productivity has been hit hard by the lack of fertilizer and other farm inputs and because land is out of production in high security zones. Severe restrictions imposed by the Sri Lankan military also limit the livelihoods of the 17,500 fishing families (9 percent of the population) whose production is only an estimated 10 percent of pre-conflict levels.

The closure in August 2006 of the A9 highway – the vital transport route linking the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the country - meant limited amounts of goods could only be transported by ship and airfreight, hampering aid deliveries and markets.

About 165,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Jaffna, heavily reliant on food assistance, are particularly vulnerable.

The Sri Lankan Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES) says it provides government food to 45,000 of these IDPs and vulnerable people and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is responsible for 120,000 more. According to Ganesh, “Food is available through the Multi-Purpose Cooperative Societies [MPCS] which is giving some [free] rations to IDPs.” But WFP says it has been a challenge to meet its food-assistance goals for Jaffna.
"For months WFP has experienced difficulties in moving food to Jaffna for the IDPs and vulnerable communities affected by the closure of the A9," Jean-Yves Lequime, acting country director for WFP, told IRIN. “We need more food to go [to Jaffna District] as WFP's food is for the most vulnerable, the ones who can't afford to pay for it."

Nonetheless, Lequime said the supply situation was improving. He said CGES had said it would allow the WFP to ship at least 1,500 tonnes monthly.

Food shipments up but not enough

WFP says it needs to ship more than 2,500 tonnes a month to adequately feed the 120,000. “So far,” says Lequime, “we have been able to only supply 20 percent of what is needed.” The agency reports that 830 tonnes of WFP mixed food arrived in the peninsula in early July and 700 tonnes of wheat flour in June. This is a marked improvement over May when only 200 tonnes of flour arrived. “This noticeable effort should be sustained over time so there are no breaks in distribution to poor households," said Lequime.

IDPs feeling the shortage

At Our Lady of Refuge welfare centre, a converted school next to a large church in Jaffna town, Father Reggie Rajeswarn told IRIN about the conditions of 28 IDP families sheltering in the church’s assembly hall. They and hundreds of others had fled shelling by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Alaipiddi town last August. “The shortage of food is very acute,” he said. “People are going hungry and I think there is malnutrition.”

The IDPs have used up their resources: “We pawned our jewellery, even our bicycles and our radios,” just to buy vegetables and other food, Rosario Selvajam told IRIN.
At another welfare camp in Nanthurai, Jasantha Arul Nasensan said, “We are now down to two, sometimes one meal a day. Since January there has been little attention paid to us.”

Evidence of malnutrition

V. Selvarajah, the Zonal Education Director for Vadamaradchi Puloly Division in northeast Jaffna District, told IRIN: “Two weeks ago, the provincial health inspector said 50 percent of our students have signs of light malnutrition. WFP provides us food for grades one to nine but we give it to grades 10 to 15 as well” - meaning none of the students gets their full ration.

The extent of malnutrition is now being more formally documented: “Malnutrition is there in the schools,” V.T. Selvaratnam, Director of Education for Jaffna District and Assistant Provincial Director, told IRIN. “A rapid assessment was undertaken by the Health Department in 17 sites,” he said. “It assessed 7,000 girls and found 28 percent with a low body mass index [BMI], which indicates malnourishment is there.”

The Jaffna Food Security Bulletin (JFSB) is a joint publication of the International Labour Organization, UN Children’s Agency, WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The June edition reported that “3,538 children in Jaffna District were screened for malnutrition and 234 (6.6 percent) severely malnourished and vulnerable children have been enrolled in UNICEF’s rehabilitation programme since March 2007”.

Furthermore, it stated: “Data produced by weight for height measurement indicates an increase in acute malnutrition among children under five-years-of-age throughout the district, from 18 percent in November 2006 to 24.4 percent in May 2007.” Acute under-five malnutrition of more than 15 percent is regarded as an emergency by humanitarian nutrition agencies.
Lack of protein

It is not just the lack of rice or flour that is causing the nutritional crisis. “The lack of protein is the issue,” Ganesh told IRIN. A UNICEF official supported his view, saying, “There is a serious impact of people not getting enough protein because fishing is so restricted for security reasons and because people can’t afford to buy fish, chicken, eggs or meat in the market.”

Most humanitarian agencies and the IDPs themselves cite the continued closure of the A9 road as the chief impediment to getting adequate food relief supplies to vulnerable communities. In addition, tight security restrictions have led to a decline in livelihoods such as farming and fishing.

“Food is important to us, but peace is more important than food,” Nasensan told IRIN. “If I were president, I would open the A9 and then we would all have jobs.”

- Asian Tribune -

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