Sri Lanka on verge of running out of petrol

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Vehicles wait in a queue to buy fuel in Colombo on Monday - AFP
Vehicles wait in a queue to buy fuel in Colombo on Monday - AFP

Sri Lanka is set to entirely run out of fuel as authorities scrambled to cancel another week of school and impose power rationing amid one of the deepest cost of living crises in the world.

As the country grinds closer to a complete halt, the energy minister on Monday pleaded with expatriates to send money home to finance new oil purchases.

Colombo ordered schools to remain closed for a third week, imposed power cuts countrywide for three hours a day and suspended sales of petrol and diesel to private buses that make up the backbone of the nation’s transport network.

Protesters demanding fuel blockaded the entrance to the prime minister’s office as millions unable to travel to work faced the threat of starvation.

Officials have said that remaining supplies of petrol will be provided to health workers, public transport and food distribution.

A huge foreign debt has left the Indian Ocean island stranded, with none of the suppliers willing to sell fuel on credit.  It comes as the war in Ukraine is driving up food and fuel prices as record rates.

Kanchana Wijesekera, the energy minister, said the measures were needed to prevent supplies running out on Monday. A shipment of diesel is expected on Friday and another of gasoline on July 22. However, Mr Wijesekera warned Colombo lacks the funds needed to pay for them.

He appealed to two million Sri Lankans working abroad to send their foreign exchange earnings home through banks instead of informal channels to pump up state coffers.

Colombo is in debt of $800 million to fuel suppliers and has been barred from raising money on international markets. It has been negotiating with Russia over potential deliveries.

“We operated about 1,000 buses across the country out of 20,000 owned by our members,” said Gemunu Wijeratne, the chairman of Sri Lanka’s Private Bus Operators Association.

“The situation will certainly get worse tomorrow because we have no way of getting diesel.”

There were long queues at petrol stations on Monday despite Sri Lanka last week becoming the first country since the 1970s oil crisis to halt fuel sales to non-essential vehicles.

Public and private sector staff have been ordered to work from home, but around two thirds of Sri Lanka’s workforce is employed in the informal sector.

Trishaw drivers and construction workers, many of whom burned through any savings over the Covid pandemic, are among the vulnerable working class.

“We need about Rs2,000 (£4.59) per day for meals. But, with food prices increasing daily we are down to about two meals,” said Sujeewa Nelum Perera, a mother of four from Kelaniya, a suburb of Colombo, whose husband has been unable to work as a trishaw driver for two weeks.

“People have cut down on consumption of meats, fruits and vegetables and even things like dhal. It isn’t just the poor but also the middle classes,” said Jeevika Weerahewa, a senior lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, one of Sri Lanka’s leading agricultural economists.

Sri Lankans flee fearing starvation

Up to 70 per cent of Sri Lanka’s healthcare professionals are having to skip shifts, a spokesperson from the country’s largest public health body, the Government Medical Officers’ Association, has told The Telegraph.

At least 100 Sri Lankans have now fled the country by boat to India and the Sri Lankan Navy has also intercepted several boats trying to reach Australia, with those on board saying they were starving.

On Saturday, a 71-year-old woman who had fled Sri Lanka by boat died in hospital in the southern Indian city of Madurai after falling unconscious during the journey.

Outrage over government decisions

Sri Lankans have been calling for the country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resign since March. They accuse Mr Rajapaksa, who was elected in 2019, of gross economic mismanagement. The country owes over £41 billion to international lenders but only has around £40 million of foreign exchange reserves left.

Weeks of demonstrations culminated in deadly violence on May 9, when a pro-government mob attacked peaceful protesters in Colombo, injuring hundreds of people, including the elderly, women and children.

In retribution, anti-government protesters torched at least 50 homes and businesses belonging to Mr Rajapaksa and his allies. At least eight people died in the violence, including a ruling party MP.