Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Bridging food gap remains a challenge

COLOMBO, 25 April 2007 (IRIN) - Food distribution to the 140,000 displaced people in Batticaloa district has improved; now relief agencies and government authorities are attempting to fill gaps in food availability, principally for those staying with host families.

According to a United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) report for the second week of April: "A gap of approximately 18,000 [displaced people] staying with host families exists ." The IASC report indicated that government authorities planned to target them for food distribution.

The number of displaced in Batticaloa district increased rapidly from 79,000 in February when civilians living in areas under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fled en masse after heavy shelling and fighting between the LTTE and government forces. By mid-March, there were close to 160,000, according to government and UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) figures. At present, about 140,000 people are displaced in the district. According to the IASC report, more than 50 percent of Sri Lanka's displaced are in Batticaloa, scattered in 87 camps or living with host families.

World Food Program (WFP) Country Director, Jeff Taft-Dick, told IRIN that an appeal for additional food assistance had met with a favourable response and sufficient stocks would be available at least for the next two months. He noted that the situation had also improved since last month. "There is better balance, greater coordination and we have received additional funding since our appeal last month," Taft-Dick said.

He added that WFP received funding from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and Japan. The United States and European Union had also contributed to increase supplies. WFP requires about US$1 million a week to look after the food needs of 400,000 displaced people in Sri Lanka, predominantly in the north and east.

Japan recently donated 3,175mt of rice to be distributed in Batticaloa, of which 422 tonnes has already arrived in the country. Japan's rice commitment is more than sufficient to feed the 100,000 people WFP is targeting in the district with allocations for more than a month.

"The supply pipeline appears safe at least until end of June," Taft-Dick said, adding that some of the new funding was in cash, allowing the WFP to procure supplies locally, cutting the time to get food to those in need , as well as helping the local economy.

Taft-Dick said that while WFP was providing 70 percent of food supplies, the remainder was being made available directly by government and local organisations. He noted that all food distribution was carried out under the direction of the Government Agent's office in Batticaloa. WFP is providing about 1,500 tonnes monthly of rice and wheat flour as well as dhal, sugar and cooking oil.

UN and government agencies and non-governmental organisations have also increased staff and resources in an effort to help the displaced.

The high number of displaced in Batticaloa as well as the fact that they are so widely dispersed makes food delivery a logistical nightmare, Basil Sylvester, the coordinator of the Batticaloa office of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), a forum for local and international NGOs and agencies, told IRIN. Sylvester said that while some camps received only dry rations, others continued to get cooked food. At some sites food was delivered in bulk while at others, families were given food rations.

The CHA coordinator also said people in camps that have been established longer were coping with the food situation far better than the newer ones.

"Those [camps] with people who came from Muttur [in Trincomalee district] in August 2006 are well organised," said Sylvester. "They get their supplies." But, the newer arrivals, such as those from Vavunathivu in Batticaloa district, displaced in March 2007, are still facing problems.

Supplies are getting to all the displaced but at some sites they remain meagre, according to Sylvester, with individual rations in some camps of 150 grams or so per day - less than half what they should be. "There's no starvation, but the stocks have not been enough from the time the [displaced] came in March; now after almost one-and-a-half months, the rations have not yet increased," Sylvester said.

The UN Children's Agency, UNICEF, however, revealed that some children under the age of five in the Batticaloa camps were malnourished. Based on a survey, UNICEF estimates that 3-5 percent of under-five children suffer from severe acute malnutrition (wasting). According to UNICEF Sri Lanka, 175 severely malnourished children are in community-based nutrition rehabilitation programmes.

In February, UNICEF conducted a series of training programmes among local health personnel and facilitated the implementation of nutrition rehabilitation programmes at community and health facility levels using ready-to-use foods and therapeutic milk. In addition, high energy biscuits were distributed to under-five children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.