LESOTHO: Hopes pinned on rain

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Rain in the past two weeks has brought some respite to Lesotho's farmers, who are struggling with one of the country's worst droughts in three decades. They are hoping for a more bountiful harvest this time, but with more than 400,000 people food insecure, some aid workers say it will take more than the rains to overcome the impact of the drought.

"We must do better than last harvest," said Setsoto Nyaku, a small-scale farmer in the hamlet of Ramabele, 45 minutes east of the capital, Maseru. "Usually, this patch of land of mine yields 70 bags of maize; this year, we harvested only eleven bags. There has not been enough rain for the crops, but it is a start. We must plant now if we are to hope for early summer maize."

Four months to the day after the government declared a state of food crisis on 9 July, when the drought had largely destroyed the annual maize and sorghum harvests, Nyaku and his neighbours are plunging into a new season with greater optimism.

Leketho Moahloli, 26, an aid worker with the international non-governmental organisation, World Vision, is more cautious. "I think we will be here next year, distributing food aid; the drought will affect people until next year - too many people ate their planting seeds, and they are too poor to buy more."

A report by the Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) noted in its assessment of the drought that "The most vulnerable have depleted their food reserves and, due to rising prices, are not able to replenish them."

Prabhakar Addala, acting country representative of the World Food Programme, commented, "If you go by the rainfall pattern over the past two to three weeks, the rains are better than what they were a year ago. We are hopeful that the rains will be normal this year, and ... the people will have more grain."

Along the dirt path that is Ramabele village's main thoroughfare, patches of grass sprout around the circular mud huts with their conical straw roofs, decorated with painted designs and set in neatly swept hard earth yards. The pathway is filled with men and women; the children are away attending school.

A World Vision banner hung between poles bears the message, "This Food Is Not For Sale", reminding people that the ration comprising 10kg bag of maize, 1.8kg bag of dried beans and peas and a litre of cooking oil being distributed are free, lest some unscrupulous persons attempt to sell the donated foodstuffs to the uninformed.

Own food is better

Moahloli and his World Vision co-worker, Keneuoe Phatela, count the bags of maize, donated to WFP by the US, which will soon be distributed to the villagers. "Jobs are hard to find in Lesotho, but this is one job I will not be sorry to see end, because that would mean the people have enough food of their own again," said Moahloli.

In 2006, WFP fed between 60,000 and 70,000 people in Lesotho, and the numbers have grown with each rainless day; drought has brought production of maize, the staple food, down to less than half the previous year's crop.

Addala noted, "In our food security assessment after August [2007] we came to the conclusion that 400,000 people need food assistance, and out of these 260,000 are covered by the WFP and the rest are covered by a consortium of donor funding".

Analysis awaits data collected in the 2006 national census, but preliminary results show a population of 1,872,000, with a life expectancy of 35.2 years illustrating the impact of AIDS in a country where nearly a quarter of all adults are HIV positive. According to UN agencies, more than a third of the nation struggle to get by on less than one US dollar a day, and 13 percent of the entire population is undernourished.

An international flash appeal issued by UN agencies in July 2007 noted that up to 553,000 people would not be able to meet their food needs. Wasting in children under 5 years old jumped from 2.4 percent in 2006 to 6 percent this year, above the 5 percent threshold the UN uses as a benchmark to declare a situation of concern.

Irrigation may not be the immediate way to safeguard against erratic rains. A third of the nation's boreholes and wells have dried up, as have many small dams and reservoirs on which livestock and gardens depend.

When normal rainfall returns, water-harvesting schemes prepared by government planners, assisted by the United Nations Development Programme, will act as protection against future droughts.

Of the $19 million requested in the appeal to international donors, $7 million is earmarked for food aid. "We have enjoyed a very good response from donors - the programme is fully resourced," said Addala.

WFP will continue its primary school feeding scheme in the mountainous northern part of the country; government has taken over servicing primary schools in the lowlands.

At Ramabele village, Abigale Modise, waiting for her share of food aid, remarked, "I accept this aid on behalf of myself and my grandchildren, who I now support because God has taken their parents. I yearn for my garden; nothing tastes sweeter than the maize I grow myself."

Source: IRIN
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