When the fighting ends, it's going to take a lot to rebuild the economy in Sri Lanka's war-ravaged northeast. Death, lost livelihoods and displacement — more than 200,000 people in the last few months — have become commonplace over the course of the island's 25-year civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, otherwise known as the LTTE or simply "the Tigers."
Fishing and agriculture — the region's predominant economic sectors — have been hit the hardest. A lot of Sri Lanka's food — specifically rice, vegetables and fruit — used to be grown there. But with the war, not even the population can live off what's produced locally. The World Food Program, referring to the formerly Tiger-held areas in the north, has said "the entire population of the Vanni is facing a food crisis due to continuous displacement, crop failure and recent floods."
Independent journalists aren't allowed into this region, so it's hard to get a good picture of the current state of the economy there. To get a little perspective I spoke with Gretchen Ansorge, a Mercy Corps program officer who worked in Trincomalee, a government-controlled district in a contested part of northeastern Sri Lanka, shortly after the 2004 tsunami. I asked her about the effects of the war on the economy:
The Tamil-controlled area didn’t have very much cross-border trade. These were remote areas that were difficult to travel to and from, and mostly all dependent on subsistence farming. I’m guessing that because these people have lost their plots of land due to displacements, don’t have access to other markets, and aren’t able to get out to sea and fish, this is probably having a strong effect on the economy in the former LTTE-controlled areas. Especially because Sri Lankans are largely dependent on fish as a staple. In the northeast, market linkages to other places weren’t as robust as in other regions, and so they had more limited access to goods outside of what they produced.
So what and how long is it going to take to rebuild the economy in the devastated northeast? Some say it could take up to two years for IDPs to even return to their homes. Families will require food assistance for a while, and Sri Lanka's agriculture and fishing industries will take time to recover. Some aid agencies already have plans for post-conflict rebuilding. The World Bank, for example, plans to rehabilitate wartime damage to soil, irrigation systems, rural roads, water and farms.
Mercy Corps' Ansorge, however, says the pressing question is how the government will respond. After years of virtually no infrastructure or financial support in the northeast from either the Tigers or the Sri Lankan government, these things will be essential for post-war rehabilitation:
More than anything, Tamils want a responsive government. Now that the Sri Lankan government has virtually succeeded in regaining control of the entire country, this is one of those moments when they can either choose to respond to these displacements and show their commitment to improving conditions in the majority-Tamil areas — by providing funding to the region and building infrastructure — or not.
Even after this war comes to a definitive end, it will be years before the northeast can wean itself off international aid and once again contribute to Sri Lanka's economic growth.