Sri Lanka announced nationwide 13-hour daily power outages from Thursday, and more hospitals suspended routine operations after life-saving medicines ran out like those of the financially troubled island Economic crisis deepened.
The South Asian nation of 22 million people is in their worst economic crisis since independence in 1948, triggered by an acute shortage of foreign exchange to pay for essential imports.
The state power regulator said it would extend Wednesday’s 10-hour power outage by another three hours from Thursday, enforcing a 13-hour statewide blackout.
The Indian Ocean island nation has been under strict electricity rationing since the beginning of the month and the monopoly said an earlier increase in power outages from seven hours to 10 hours was imposed because there was no oil to power thermal generators.
More than 40 percent of Sri Lanka’s electricity is hydroelectric, but most reservoirs ran dangerously low because there had been no rain, officials said.
At least two other hospitals said they had suspended routine surgeries because they were dangerously short on vital medical supplies, anesthetics and chemicals to perform diagnostic tests, and wanted to save them for emergencies.
The country’s largest medical facility, the National Hospital of Sri Lanka in the capital, said it had also halted routine diagnostic testing. However, an official added that the facility will continue to be powered from the national grid.
The country’s electricity regulator has urged more than a million government employees to work from home to save on fuel.
“We have asked the government to allow the public sector, which employs about 1.3 million people, to work from home for the next two days so that we can better deal with the fuel and electricity shortages,” said Janaka Ratnayake, Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, Reuters news agency said.
Amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, foreign exchange reserves have fallen 70 percent in the past two years, to a paltry $2.31 billion in February.
Wednesday’s protracted power outages were caused in part by the government’s inability to pay $52 million for a 37,000-ton shipment of diesel that was waiting to be unloaded, Ratnayake said.
“We don’t have any foreign currency to pay,” he said, warning of further power outages over the next two days. “That’s the reality.”
Sri Lanka’s largest fuel distributor said the country would be without diesel, the most commonly used fuel for public transport, for at least two days.
Local broadcasters reported widespread protests across the country demanding fuel for private vehicles that are also used for public transport.
There were no reports of violence, but hundreds of motorists blocked main roads in several cities, while dozens demonstrated outside the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in Colombo, calling for Governor Ajith Cabraal to be ousted.
Officials at the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation pushed for it upcoming drivers to leave and return after unloading and distributing imported diesel.
Fuel prices have also been raised repeatedly, with gasoline prices nearly doubling since the beginning of the year and diesel prices up 76 percent.
Colombo imposed a sweeping import ban in March 2020 to save foreign exchange needed to service its $51 billion foreign debt. However, this has led to widespread shortages of essential goods and sharp price increases.
The government has said it is seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund while asking for it more loans from India and China.
Sri Lanka’s current predicament has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which heavily affected by tourism and transfers. Many economists also blame government mismanagement, including tax cuts and years of fiscal deficits.
The country’s statistical office announced on Wednesday, before the crisis began, economic growth of 3.7 percent for calendar year 2021 – after a record decline of 3.6 percent in the previous year.