06 Jul 2022, 08:20

Sri Lankans return to cooking with firewood as economy burns

 NEHINNA, Sri Lanka, July 6, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - As once relatively wealthy Sri
Lanka suffers a dire economic crisis with shortages of everything from
medicines to gas, people are returning to cooking with firewood.

The switch began at the beginning of the year when more than 1,000 kitchens
exploded across the country, killing at least seven people and injuring
hundreds more.

The reason was suppliers looking to cut costs and increasing the proportion
of propane, which raised the pressure to dangerous levels.

But now, along with much else in the country of 22 million people, gas is
either unavailable or too expensive for most.

Some tried to shift to kerosene oil cookers, but the government did not have
dollars to import it along with petrol and diesel, which are also in short

And those who bought electric cookers were in for a rude shock when the
government imposed lengthy power blackouts as it ran out of dollars to import
fuel for generators.

Niluka Hapuarachchi, 41, was miraculously unharmed when her gas range
exploded soon after cooking Sunday lunch in August.

"Fortunately, no one was there at the time. There were pieces of glass all
over the floor. The glass-top stove had exploded. I will never use gas for
cooking. It is not safe. We are now on firewood," she said, despite moves to
address the propane problem.

Roadside eatery owner M.G. Karunawathi, 67, also switched to wood and said it
was a choice between closing her business or putting up with smoke and soot.

"We suffer (smoke inhalation) when cooking with firewood, but we have no
choice," Karunawathi told AFP. "It is also difficult to find firewood and it
is also becoming very expensive."

- Pain into 2023 -

Sri Lanka used to be a middle-income country, with GDP per head comparable to
the Philippines and living standards the envy of neighbouring India.

But with economic mismanagement and the crucial tourism industry hammered by
Covid-19, the nation has run out of dollars needed to pay for most imports.

And the pain will likely continue for some time, with Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe in parliament on Tuesday saying: "We will have to face
difficulties in 2023 as well.

"This is the truth. This is the reality."

Unofficial inflation is now second only to Zimbabwe, and the United Nations
estimates about 80 percent of people skip meals because they cannot afford

Before the crisis, almost all households in Colombo could afford to use gas,
but now woodcutter Selliah Raja, 60, is doing a roaring trade.

"Earlier we had just one customer -- a restaurant that had a wood-fired oven
-- but we now have so many, we can't meet the demand," Raja told AFP.

He says his timber suppliers in the provinces have doubled their prices
because of the sharp rise in demand and skyrocketing transport costs.

"Earlier, land owners paid us to uproot rubber trees that are no longer
productive," lumberjack Sampath Thushara told AFP in the tea-and-rubber-
growing southern village of Nehinna.

"Today, we have to pay to get these trees."

Foraging for wood can also be dangerous in the snake- and insect-infested
forests. Last week, a father of three died from wasp stings in central Sri
Lanka and four others were hospitalised.

Demand is also surging for alternative energy, and entrepreneur Riyad Ismail,
51, has seen sales light up for the hi-tech firewood stove he invented in

He has attached a small battery-powered electric fan to blow air into the
barrel-shaped stove to ensure better burning, thus reducing smoke and soot
associated with traditional firewood burners.

His upmarket "Ezstove" and the mass-market "Janalipa", which uses coconut
charcoal, promises a minimum 60 percent savings compared with cooking with

Both his stoves -- which cost around $20 and $50, respectively -- have become
big sellers with buyers having to go on a waiting list.

It has been so successful, Ismail says, there are several copies on the

"You will see many renditions of my design... other people are piggybacking
(on the design)," Ismail said while making chicken satay.

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