COLOMBO: Most Colombo residents stayed home on Thursday, unable to reach work or drive their children to school, as crisis-hit Sri Lanka ran out of fuel.
The island nation of 22 million people has defaulted on its debt as it struggles with its worst financial crisis in more than 70 years. The country’s grace period to repay $78 million of unpaid interest payments expired on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who took office last week, said on Monday that Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves had fallen to almost nothing and the country urgently needed $75 million in foreign exchange to pay for essential imports.
With no money coming, fuel ships remained anchored offshore, their cargoes out of reach.
Gas pumps have since gone dry, leaving many queuing in the hope of refueling their vehicles.
“When you have no choice, what to do?” said Chamin Tilakkumara, whose three-wheeler has been parked in a queue on Flower Road in an affluent part of Colombo for two days.
“I have six mouths to feed back at home, so if I don’t do this how will we manage?”
Milani Perera, another Colombo resident, told Arab News that she struggled to return home after much of the city’s public transport came to a halt.
“I stood for over an hour in the rain with two small children and no way to go home,” she said. “I was weeping when a complete stranger decided to give us a ride near my home. I was so thankful, but I don’t want to go out again.”
Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera told Parliament on Thursday that fuel will not be available for at least another few days.
The Education Ministry has since suspended schools.
Sri Lanka is facing a shortage not only of fuel, but also food and medicines, as its budget deficit climbs to $6.8 billion, or 13 percent of gross domestic product.
The crisis has triggered widespread demonstrations across the country since March, with protesters demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s elder brother, quit as prime minister last week, after clashes between government supporters and protesters left nine people dead and almost 300 injured.