Smoke “makes us suffer when we cook, but we have no choice,” said M.G. Karunawathi, 67, a restaurant owner who said he had to choose between closing his business or enduring the smoke and soot.
Sri Lanka was once a middle-income country, with a GDP per capita comparable to that of the Philippines and a standard of living that neighboring India envied.
But the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought tourism to a screeching halt, coupled with economic mismanagement and corruption have plunged the country into its worst economic crisis since independence and drained liquidity, cutting off most exports .
Gas is now either unavailable or too expensive for most 22 million people. Some have tried to switch to kerosene stoves but the government has run out of dollars to import them, nor gasoline or diesel, also hit by shortages.
– Search for wood –
Those who bought electric cookers suffered from long power cuts imposed by the government for lack of foreign exchange to import fuel for the generators.
“Before, we only had one client, a restaurant that had a wood-fired oven, but now we have so many that we can’t meet the demand,” Selliah Raja, a lumberjack, told AFP. 60 years.
He says his suppliers have doubled the price of wood with the surge in demand and because of soaring fuel prices for transportation.
“Previously, landowners paid us to uproot rubber trees that are no longer productive,” Sampath Thushara, another logger in the southern village of Nehinna, where tea and rubber are grown, told AFP. “Today we have to pay to get these trees.”
Finding wood can also be dangerous in forests infested with snakes and insects. Last week, a father-of-three died of wasp stings in the center of the island, and four other people were hospitalized.
Entrepreneur Riyad Ismail, 51, has seen sales soar for the high-tech wood-burning stove he invented in 2008.
His two stoves, which cost $20 and $50 respectively, are selling like hot cakes and buyers now have to sign up on a waiting list to get them.
– “Complete collapse” –
The United Nations estimates that around 80% of people skip meals because they can no longer afford to eat.
“Our economy has faced a complete collapse,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament on June 22.
His government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.
The transition to firewood began at the beginning of the year. More than 1,000 kitchens have exploded nationwide, killing at least seven people, injuring hundreds more, as gas suppliers seek to cut costs by increasing the proportion of propane, pushing pressure to levels dangerous.
Niluka Hapuarachchi, 41, miraculously escaped unscathed when her gas stove exploded shortly after cooking a lunch.
“Luckily no one was there at the time. There were pieces of glass all over the floor. The cooker had exploded. I will never use gas for cooking again. It’s not safe. We now we only use firewood,” she says.