The government in Lesotho should declare a state of emergency to help donors respond to the worst drought in the kingdom in 30 years, a senior UN official told IRIN.
"It just makes it easier for us to get donors to mobilise resources," explained Mokitinyane Nthimo, the assistant representative of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Lesotho.
Over 400,000 of the country's 1.9 million people will struggle to meet their basic food needs after July this year, as a result of extensive crop failures and exorbitant prices for maize, the staple food.
Bhim Udas, the World Food Programme (WFP) resident representative in Lesotho, said the price of 12.5kg bag of maizemeal had doubled since last year, "from maluti 25.00 (US$3.50) in March 2006 to M38.50 (about $5.40) in March 2007". More than half the country's population lives on less than US$2 a day.
"A further increase in maize prices at local shops is expected in the coming months as commercial importers begin to buy grains from the South African market at high prices," Udas said.
Many people are paid in kind, or partly in kind, which has meant that food shortages have also brought increased unemployment. Poor and vulnerable people, including HIV/AIDS affected and orphans, were already faced with serious food insecurity.
In the preliminary findings of a vulnerability assessment report, WFP estimated that a higher number of 550,000 people could be in need of food. "The government will not be able to meet the shortfall but will rely heavily on commercial imports," added Udas.
According to the Lesotho Meteorological Services (LMS), the drought has been prompted by climate change. "There has been an increased frequency of droughts and other hydro-meteorological disasters since the late 1970s, and the increase in these events can be linked to climate change," said a report by the LMS.
The lack of rainfall this year, and the driest February since 1968, was caused by the presence of El Nino conditions in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, which suppressed rains over the country and the rest of the subcontinent, LMS said.
"The warming of the southwest Indian Ocean [part of the El Nino phenomenon] promotes formation of tropical cyclones over that ocean, and they in turn pull away moisture from the subcontinent that could otherwise result in rainfall over the country, and that was the situation this year, where a series of tropical cyclones pulled away moisture from the subcontinent and therefore resulted in drought," said a LMS report.
A well-placed meteorologist in Lesotho commented, "And we do know that El Ninos have become more frequent because of climate change."
The mountainous kingdom also experiences harsh climatic conditions that limit the growing season of many crops. "Many parts of the country do not have the suitable climatic conditions to grow maize, but farmers still try to grow maize in the highlands, where we have been trying to get them to grow potatoes," said the FAO's Nthimo, who has been struggling to promote crop diversification.
A major portion - 59 percent - of Lesotho's topography comprises mountains, with only 17 percent lowlands, where most of the country's produce is grown. "Besides, the rains did fail this year," added Nthimo.
Lesotho will require approximately 30,000 tonnes (mt) of cereals and 6,700mt of other foods to meet its minimum consumption requirements, according to the UN agencies.
Overall, the country's national cereal production forecast is estimated at about 72,000mt, representing a substantial shortfall of 42 percent compared to last year's harvest.