Fifteen-hour-long power outages to starvation: What awaits Sri Lanka as it runs out of petrol?

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned Lankans that the ‘next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives'. The country, facing its worst economic crisis in more than 70 years, was down to its last day of petrol on Monday

FP Explainers May 17, 2022 10:57:35 IST
Fifteen-hour-long power outages to starvation: What awaits Sri Lanka as it runs out of petrol?

Motorists queue to buy petrol at a Ceylon Petroleum Corporation fuel station in Colombo. AFP

The Sri Lanka economic crisis has reached a tipping point after newly-elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on Monday, announced that the island-country was down to its last day of petrol.

In a televised address to the country, which has seen violent protests and the subsequent reluctant resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe said, “At the moment, we only have petrol stocks for a single day. The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives. We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period.”

What does it mean to run out of petrol? What happens to a country in such a situation? How will Sri Lanka fight this crisis? We take a look at the situation and try to answer some of these questions.

Sri Lanka’s crisis

On Monday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the country had run out of petrol and that the residents could face more hardships in the coming months.

The country, Wickremesinghe added, needs $75 million in foreign exchange to pay for essential imports.

The dire situation could be seen in the streets of Colombo where auto rickshaw drivers queued in serpentine queues in a fruitless wait for fuel.

“I have been in the queue for more than six hours,” one driver, Mohammad Ali told Reuters. “We spend almost six to seven hours in the line just to get petrol.”

Another driver, Mohammad Naushad said, “We’ve been here since 7-8 in the morning and it is still not clear if they will have fuel or not,” he said. “When will it come, no one knows. Is there any point in our waiting here, we also don't know.”

Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst-ever economic crisis since its independence. The island nation’s economy has been has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising energy prices and populist tax cuts. A chronic shortage of foreign currency and soaring inflation had led to a severe shortage of medicines, fuel and other essentials.

Also read: Is Sri Lanka's economic crisis a result of China's debt-trap diplomacy?

Wickremesinghe said he was forced to permit printing money in order to pay state-sector employees and for essential goods and services. “However, we must remember that printing money leads to the depreciation of the rupee,” he added.

He also proposed selling off Sri Lankan Airlines as part of efforts to stabilise the nation's finances. The carrier lost 45 billion Sri Lankan rupees in the year ending March 2021.

What’s in store for Sri Lanka?

Wickremesinghe warned that residents in the country will have to endure power outages for as long as 15 hours a day.

Earlier, in March, residents were left without any power for more than 10 hours when diesel ran dry in the country. Official reports had stated then that diesel — the main fuel for buses and commercial vehicles — was unavailable at stations across the island.

Public transport services will also be heavily impacted, causing inconvenience to people. Moreover, industrial production will also be hit, owing to the lack of petrol.

The shortage of petrol will also lead to lead to the collapse of agriculture, medical services and industrial production, leading to anarchy.

Udaya Gammanpila, the former energy minister of Sri Lanka, was quoted as telling Sky News, “It’s like a man without blood, the body dies. The situation is terrible.”

Yapa Abeywardana, a politician speaking in Parliament earlier, was also quoted as saying that this is “just the beginning” and cautioned that “the food, gas and electricity shortages will get worse”, and ultimately result in “very acute food shortages and starvation”.

Is there any hope?

As the nation continues its struggles, Sri Lankan minister of power and energy Kanchana Wijesekera assured the public of adequate fuel in the country soon.

In a statement on his Twitter page, Wijesekera said that with the arrival of a diesel cargo on Sunday and three fuel vessels in the near future, adequate fuel will be made available nationwide.

He also requested the public not to queue or re-fill in the next three days until the fuel station deliveries are completed.

Moreover, Wickremesinghe has appealed to the world for more help, saying “there won’t be a hunger crisis, we will find food”.

India has extended a helping hand to its neighbour, providing fuel, medicine, and food items. Since April, when the crisis got out of hand, India has played the role of big brother — supplying medicines and food to providing loans and financial assistance.

With inputs from agencies

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