In the wake of the most severe drought in 30 years, the kingdom of Lesotho has declared a state of emergency and appealed for international assistance for over 400,000 people in need of urgent food aid.
"Food assessments conducted by local and international institutions and organisations, including the [government's] Disaster Management Authority, the [UN] Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), ... all confirm a food crisis," Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili said in a recent statement.
According to the FAO and WFP reports, the cereal harvest, of which the largest part is maize, Lesotho's staple food, has been slashed by over 40 percent, from 126,200 metric tonnes (mt) of cereals in 2006 to 72,000mt this year. Approximately 328,000mt of cereals are required to feed the country.
The rainy season in Lesotho usually lasts from October to April. Farmers at Thuathe, a farming area near the capital, Maseru, welcomed the prime minister's call for assistance, saying that without help they would have nothing to feed their families.
In normal circumstances, Malakabane Mokoatsi, a sharecropper and mother of six, produced 40 bags of maize from the eight hectares she tends. This year the yield was a mere 12 bags, six of which went to the other shareholder.
"This means that I am literally without food, as these six bags ... at the very most, will be able to feed my family until the end of September, and from then onwards I will be forced to buy."
Food prices soar
The significant drop in cereal harvests, such as maize and sorghum, has increased prices beyond the reach of many households. Reduced harvests in South Africa, the main regional supplier, have also contributed to the price hikes.
Mokoatsi said feeding her family would be a struggle, because the family's only cash income was $130 a month, which her son earned as a taxi driver.
"Field reports indicate that the price of 12.5kg of maize meal has nearly doubled since 2006, from $3.50 in March 2006 to $5.40 in March 2007. More than half the country lives on less than US$2 a day," said the latest Southern Africa Humanitarian Update by the Regional Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a group of UN agencies and humanitarian non-governmental agencies.
The crop failure has also reduced casual labour opportunities, especially in agriculture, making it even harder for the nation's poor to survive.
A chronic problem
"These assessments point to the vicious cycle of food insecurity brought on by erratic weather, prolonged drought, poverty and the impact of HIV/AIDS in the region," the update said, warning that although immediate food and agricultural assistance was required, it would not significantly change the long-term situation of the affected people.
Mapoloko Halieo, who also farms at Thuathe, said this was the worst harvest in years of investing in field and food production, and she had only managed to reap three bags of maize from her three hectares. She said her maize cobs were short and small, with underdeveloped grains.
"There were years when I did bad, but at least I could feed my family. This maize has not returned even my planting expenses, and I do not know what I am going to do," she said. "I might have to sell my cows, though I cannot expect to get much from them either, as they are thin and will not sell for much."
Mosisili said Lesotho produced about 30 percent of its total food requirement. "Furthermore, our people are going through untold hardships because of the unrelenting impact of HIV/AIDS [official estimates put prevalence at 23.2 percent] and the number of orphans is increasing each day.
His statement noted that "analysis of prices of basic food commodities indicate a drastic upward trend ... compounded by very low purchasing power - quite a vicious circle by all accounts."
Quoting a Basotho saying, loosely translated as "help is given to those who make an effort to help themselves", Mosisili said the government viewed the declaration "of food crisis and appeal for assistance as a short-term measure to alleviate famine", and appealed "for adequate resources to eliminate our dependency on food aid in the long term".
He said the government had devised strategies to ensure national food security in the future, which included identifying agriculture as the key factor in the poverty-reduction strategy; improving agricultural productivity and food security through maximum use of arable land, with subsidised inputs; promoting drought-resistant crops, and scaling up homestead farming/gardening.
Besides food shortages, there was also a critical shortage of water for human as well as livestock consumption, and the statement pointed out that "major streams and rivers are either dry or running low".