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Impact of the Tsunami disaster on food availability and food security in the affected countries

Situation Report
Originally published
Economic and Social Department Contribution



The earthquake and tsunamis of 26 December 2004 which struck several countries of South Asia, have reportedly killed over 150 000 people, made an estimated five million people homeless and caused extensive damage to infrastructure. Important losses in the fishing sector and in agriculture have been reported, particularly in Sri-Lanka and Indonesia. While all countries were affected, the economic consequences in smaller nations like Sri Lanka and the Maldives are likely to be relatively more severe.

Even when the overall macro-economic impact is limited, local communities and parts of the population will experience severe food security impacts in the short and long-term because parents and relatives have been lost, livelihood assets have been destroyed, and sources of income no longer exist. The impacts on the fishery, agriculture, and forestry sub-sectors will vary according to tsunami impact on the farming and livelihood systems in place. In general, a relatively stronger impact is expected on fisheries and on the people who derive their livelihood from this sector. The extent of land and forest degradation, infrastructure collapse, harvest and livestock losses in coastal areas will also need to be assessed in more detail. A first step could be to overlay land use and farming systems maps with hazard impact maps.

In several areas of high population density and land scarcity, (such as North Sumatra), many farmers had been cultivating plots too small to cover their subsistence needs and were engaged in multiple farm and non-farm activities to secure their livelihoods. Such systems of diversified employment and income sources need to be considered when assessing disaster impact on agriculture and food security.

At the farm level, losses of rice stocks are also likely to be important. Large numbers of people have been displaced. It is estimated that 2 million people in 12 different countries in the disaster region are in need of food assistance. WFP plans to distribute 169 000 tonnes of emergency food aid, over a period of six months, to the most needy population.

Rice is the main staple in all countries of the region. In Indonesia and Sri-Lanka, the 2005 main season paddy crop, for harvest from March, had been planted just before the tsunami struck. In southern Thailand, harvest of the main paddy crop was underway. In southern India, the secondary Rabi paddy crop was on the ground. A detailed assessment of the extent of crop damage and its impact on the overall national food supply situation for the months ahead is not yet possible, as access to several areas remains difficult. However, harvest prospects have deteriorated in agricultural areas worst hit by the tsunami and heavy rains.

In spite of local losses, overall food availability in the region affected should be adequate to cover the food assistance needs. Among the countries most severely affected by the wave surges, Thailand and India are consistently large exporters of rice. Myanmar has also an exportable surplus in 2005. Indonesia gathered a bumper paddy crop in 2004 and carries relatively large stocks. Although Sri-Lanka had a relatively large rice deficit last year, and in the Maldives most of the food requirements are met by imports, their relief food needs could be covered by supplies in neighbouring countries. Overall, since relatively large rice supplies are available in the region, it is recommended that local purchases be made whenever possible in order to meet food aid requirements in the different affected countries, so as to avoid domestic food markets disturbances. However, given the damage to infrastructure, in particular roads, and the lack of suitable transportation means, logistical difficulties will hamper the distribution of food to the affected population.

The situation in the worst affected countries is summarized below.


The provinces most affected by the tsunami, Aceh and Northern Sumatra in Sumatra Island, are among the most vulnerable areas in the country, with one-third of the population living below the poverty line. According to the latest information, more than 90 000 people have died. Fifty per cent of the population in Aceh has reportedly been seriously affected. In the province of north Sumatra, the tsunami has mostly affected two districts; the island of Nias and Tapanuli Tengah. Over 70% of the inhabitants of some coastal villages are reported to have perished. All infrastructure has been destroyed in the worst-affected areas, leaving people without water, food or shelter. Many local government officials are themselves either dead or missing. In Aceh, aid organisations were severely restricted from the area because of separatist conflict, until the tsunami struck. Heavy rains after the tsunami in Aceh and northern Sumatra have increased the risks of cholera and other waterborne diseases. It is estimated that 1 million persons are in immediate need of emergency food assistance.

The 2005 main season paddy and maize crops, to be harvested from March on, were already on the ground when the tsunami struck Sumatra. The island is the second in Indonesia in terms of rice production. Together, the two worst affected provinces account for about 10 percent of the aggregate national output in a normal year. There is, as yet, no assessment of the impact of the tsunami on cereal production at local and national levels.

The aggregate 2004 paddy output (main and secondary seasons) was officially estimated at 54 million tonnes, some 3 percent above the good harvest of 2003. Following last year's bumper crop the Government banned imports of rice in 2004 and there are adequate stocks to cover the food needs of the population affected by wave surges.

Fishing is an important economic activity for Sumatra Island, accounting for about one-third of the national fish catches. Losses of fishing craft, gear, and fishery infrastructure in the Northern provinces, yet to be assessed, will have a severe impact on local economies.

Sri Lanka

Over 30 000 people reportedly died, 750 000 were displaced, and at least are 200 000 homeless as a result of the tsunami. It is estimated that some 750 000 of the most vulnerable people are in need of international food assistance.

The hardest-hit eastern and southern coastal districts are among the largest paddy growing areas in the country. Planting of the 2005 main Maha paddy season, accounting for some 60 percent of the total rice production, had just been completed when the tsunami arrived. In eastern parts, persistent heavy rains from mid-December and floods have also adversely affected the emerging paddy crop, particularly in Ampara, Batticoloa and Trincomalee districts. Prospects for the harvest, scheduled to start in March, have deteriorated.

The 2004 paddy production was sharply reduced by dry weather. Based on the findings of FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Missions, the aggregate output (Maha and Yala seasons) is estimated close to 2.5 million tones, 20 percent below the level of the previous year. Total cereal import requirements in marketing year 2004/05 (March/February) were estimated at 1.42 million tonnes, including food aid for drought-affected population. With the deterioration of prospects for the 2005 main Maha harvest, the country's already tight food supply situation could worsen further in 2005/06.

In coastal areas, fishing is the major economic activity, providing direct employment for about 250 000 people. In 2003, the fishing sector contributed to only 2.6 percent of the GDP but, in recent years, it has emerged as a dynamic export-oriented sector, generating substantial foreign exchange earnings. Preliminary estimates indicate that 70 percent of the fishing fleet and industrial infrastructure have been destroyed by the wave surges, with predictable adverse economic effects both at local and national levels.


Most of the country's 400 km western coastline, including numerous islands in the Andaman Sea has been devastated by the tsunami. Some 5 200 people are reported dead and thousands more have been severely affected. In the worst-struck south-eastern provinces of Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang and Satun damage to tourism and fishing infrastructure is extensive. The country has not made any formal request for international food assistance.

In the Southern region, including the affected provinces, harvesting of the 2004 main season paddy crop was underway when the tsunami hit coastal areas. An assessment of the damage to agriculture is not yet available but local crop losses are likely. However, since the whole Southern region (14 provinces) accounts for only 4 percent of the country's annual paddy crop, the damage is not expected to seriously affect production prospects at the national level.

Thailand is the world's largest rice exporter. Following a succession of bumper harvests, coupled with high international prices, exports in 2004 are preliminary estimated at a record level of 9.2 million tonnes. Fortunately, port activities both in Bangkok and Ko Si Chang do not appear to have been affected by the tidal wave. With the harvest of the 2005 main rice crop just about to be completed, current rice supplies should be sufficient to cover the immediate food needs in the affected areas of both Thailand and neighbouring countries.


Nearly 10 000 people are confirmed dead, with about 6 000 missing in the worst hit south-eastern coastal states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. The state of Kerala, in the south west, was also seriously affected. Fishing communities are likely to have born the brunt of the damage and losses of livelihood. However, international food aid has not been formally requested by the Government.

Paddy is a major crop in the two most affected southern states, which together account for some 14 percent of the national aggregate production of rice. When the tsunami struck, the 2005 secondary Rabi season crop, due for harvesting from April, was on the ground. Crop losses are likely to have occurred in the worst affected areas but a detailed assessment is not yet available. However, as some 90 percent of the country's annual paddy crop is grown during the main Kharif season, from May to November, the tsunami did not affect the overall 2005 production prospects.

India is an important exporter of wheat and rice. Production of paddy in 2004 declined slightly from the good level of the previous year. Carry-over stocks are also relatively tight; as a result, exports in 2005 are expected to decrease to some 2 million tonnes. However, at this level, rice surplus is sufficient to cover the food aid needs in the country's worst-affected areas.


High waves inundated all the islands. Large areas of the capital Male, where about one-third of the population lives, were left under water. Over 70 people have been reported dead, with many others missing. Twenty of the Maldives' 199 inhabited islands have been described as "totally destroyed". The shallowness of the water limited the tsunami's destructive power, but flooding was extensive. International emergency food aid will be required for 50 000 most vulnerable people.

The tsunami also resulted in severe damage to housing and infrastructure in the tourism and fishing sectors. Tourism is the largest industry of the country, accounting for some 30 percent of GDP, over 60 percent of the foreign exchange receipts and about 90 percent of government tax revenues. Fishing is the second leading sector in the economy. The damage to infrastructure caused by the tsunami will clearly have a serious impact on the national economy. Agriculture, constrained by the limited availability of arable land and shortages of domestic labour, plays a minor role in the overall economy. The country's cereal consumption requirements, averaging some 40 000 tonnes per year, are normally covered by commercial imports.

Other affected countries

Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar and Somalia, among others, were also hit by the Tsunami, but damage was relatively limited. Exportable surplus of rice in Myanmar and adequate availabities in Bangladesh and Malaysia, following good 2004 paddy harvests and commercial imports, are estimated to be sufficient for the immediate food aid needs of the population affected by the tsunami disaster.

Somalia is the worst-hit African country, with damage concentrated along the north east coast, on the tip of the Horn of Africa. Up to 300 Somalis are reported to have died, with thousands more homeless and many fishermen still unaccounted for. About 30 000 people have been displaced. The residual tsunami effect destroyed 1,180 homes, smashed 2,400 boats and rendered freshwater wells and reservoirs unusable. The UN has called for $13m to help tsunami victims. WFP has so far distributed 83 tons of food aid to 2 600 beneficiaries, while aid agencies with small ground operations in Puntland also delivered food and relief supplies. Somalia has poor road infrastructure, presenting aid agencies with a major challenge.