SWAZILAND-SOUTH AFRICA: First drought and food shortages, now fires

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Fires have blazed through parts of Swaziland and eastern South Africa since last week, destroying crops and plantations and killing over 20 people and thousands of cattle. The Swazi government declared a national emergency in June.

"Fires have broken out in all four regions of the country; high winds have been spreading these fires since Friday," William Dlamini, spokesperson for Swaziland's Fire and Emergency Services, told IRIN. South Africa's eastern provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga and most of Swaziland have been extremely dry for months.

According to Dlamini, the winter months of May to October, which were normally very dry, had not seen any rain since early June. The fires have broken out at a time when about 40 percent of Swaziland's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages after the worst harvest in the country's recorded history.

Last week UN agencies appealed to the international donor community for US$15.6 million and a timely response to avert a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the drought-stricken kingdom, which is struggling to feed its people.

Swazis traditionally burn fields in the winter months, in the belief that this facilitates new grass growth. "Before a person can burn, he needs a chief's permission in a rural area, and the municipal fire department's permission in town," said Nomsa Mdluli.

"But people burn anyhow, and the law is not enforced. People see grass that is not their property and they set it alight." She was one of several residents in the central Manzini region whose thatched hut was completely destroyed.

Although the strong winds abated on Monday, the fires kept spreading, and fire fighters and emergency personnel in South Africa as well as Swaziland were being overstretched.

Swazi firemen had to choose between fighting fires or attending to motor vehicle accidents caused by the blinding smoke. "The budget for emergency services is too low," said a fire fighter in Swaziland's central Manzini region, who wished to remain unnamed.

"More equipment and personnel are needed - there is no way the emergency services can cope with a nationwide fire problem like this."

Source: IRIN
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