The UN is appealing for US$18.9 million to feed more than 500,000 rural people struggling to cope with food shortages in one of Lesotho's worst droughts in 30 years.
Production of maize, the country's staple food, has dropped by more than half compared to 2006, "causing a deficit that is likely to be further aggravated by decreased cereal production in parts of South Africa, which has also experienced below-average rainfall for much of this year, and which supplies approximately 70 percent of Lesotho's food requirements," according to the UN flash appeal document.
The funds will be used to cover programmes related to agriculture, food, health, nutrition, protection, and water and sanitation during the next six months. Government plans for providing a general subsidy for maizemeal have almost been almost finalised, the document said.
"With over 55 percent of Basotho households living below the poverty line, out of which 40 percent are extremely poor and with a third of households female-headed, the humanitarian crisis dictates that poverty alleviation transfers alone cannot have an adequate beneficial impact on the livelihoods of vulnerable people," the flash appeal pointed out.
The assistance will therefore focus on rebuilding sources of income, such as providing subsidised agricultural inputs for farmers and promotion of home gardens.
About 82 percent of Lesotho's 1.8 million people live in rural areas and agriculture is the main source of income for 60 percent of the population.
"The rural poor, who have no source of income besides agriculture, are the worst affected, as they cannot afford to buy the staple food, maizemeal, selling at US$0.30 per kg," said Seabata Motsamai, director of the Lesotho Council of Non-governmental Organisations (LECONGO), an umbrella body.
Lesotho does not provide any social grants, but people aged above 70 receive a monthly pension of about $28. "If you are fortunate to have an elderly person in your family, you can access that money - otherwise you have nothing," he said.
Casual labour wages have stayed the same for the last three years - $1.41 per day - while prices have increased significantly. "Most people are dependant on remittances from family members working in the capital, Maseru, where the average salary is less than $100 a month," Motsamai said.
Aid workers fear that the drought will aggravate the underlying causes of acute malnutrition and vulnerability: persistent food insecurity, poor access to sanitation, poor household childcare and hygiene practices, and poor healthcare at household and community levels.
"Wasting in children under five has surpassed the international threshold of five percent for declaring a situation of concern, reaching six percent this year from 2.4 percent in 2006," the appeal document noted. According to the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF), drought-related acute malnutrition is expected to peak in late 2007 and early 2008.
Figures from the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Maseru, the country's main referral centre, for the period January to July 2007, have revealed that 12 percent of admissions to paediatric wards resulted from severe malnutrition, while fatalities in such cases were around 25 percent.
"Actually, the fatality rate can be put down to be between 25 to 30 percent of the children being admitted with severe malnutrition," said Grace Phiri, head of paediatrics at the hospital. "People cannot afford any protein-rich food and are surviving on a diet comprising only carbohydrates."
Motsamai said people in rural Lesotho had already begun selling their assets as a means of surviving the drought, and water rationing was in effect in urban as well as rural areas. "The worst-affected areas are in the southwest, which did not receive any rainfall," he said. According to the appeal document, an estimated 30 percent of boreholes and wells have dried up.
Lesotho's Department of Rural Water Supply estimates that over 30 percent of households countrywide no longer have access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities - a steep rise from the 21 percent estimated by the UN Development Programme's 2006 Human Development Report.
The flow of water into the Mohokare River, which supplies Maseru and other urban and peri-urban centres, was minimal, the appeal document said. "The Maqalika Dam [on the Mohokare] has enough in its reservoir to supply Maseru and the other areas for only 67 days."
The government has allocated a total of $19 million to its national emergency response, of which $12 million will go to large cash-for-work projects, including land reclamation, and $6 million to agricultural activities.