/ 29 November 2012

Lesotho’s food crisis: A waiting game

A Basotho headman with his cows in Tsereoane on May 26 2012
A Basotho headman with his cows in Tsereoane on May 26 2012

An estimated 725 000 Basotho – around a third of the country's population – will need humanitarian assistance as a food crisis unfolds in the mountain kingdom. This is the result of two consecutive years of erratic weather. Flooding and heavy rain in the 2010 to 2011 cropping year, followed by a drought the following year and combined with higher prices of staple foods such as maize meal, has put serious strain on many vulnerable families.

The emergency declaration in August and a plea by the new coalition government, led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, for just over M1.4-billion (US$1.6-million) has attracted little response. So far just over M189-million (US$22-million) has been raised. In part, the lack of funding can be attributed to a growing number of needy countries chasing after a shrinking pool of donor aid as developed countries try to solve their own domestic political and economic troubles.  

Much of Lesotho’s hopes rest on its closest neighbour, South Africa, to which it is tied economically. South Africa promised assistance in October, but no figure was provided. While some help is on the way, the country’s leadership is candid about the fact that it may not get what it needs to pull itself from the brink. In a meeting at the United Nations building in Maseru, Matshidiso Mojaki, head of Lesotho’s Disaster Management Authority, said: "We know we may not get all of this, but however much comes will be welcomed. We will have to use what we have and that is that." 

While politicians wait for South Africa and other donors, on the ground help couldn’t come soon enough.

Puseletso Tsiu (75) breaks down in tears as she describes how it has become so much more difficult for her to put food on the table for her three grandchildren since the crisis began.  After losing her two daughters to HIV, which she calls the "disease which is affecting everyone", Tsiu is forced in her old age to eke out a living by doing piecework for two local police officers. The fathers of her grandchildren are in South Africa. They do not send any money to care for the children. 

Tsiu is fortunate to receive a booster stipend of M800 (US$94) over the last four months of 2012 in addition to benefiting from a quarterly M360 (US$40) through a programme implemented by the government and the United Nations Childrens Fund (Unicef), which she uses to buy basic goods like maize meal, oil and school shoes for the youngest of her three boys. She says that without this extra cash she is not sure how she would have survived. Tsiu’s household is one of 15 000 receiving assistance and she is still struggling to make ends meet.  

Tough times for farmers
Most of Lesotho’s population live in rural areas and rely largely on subsistence farming as their main source of food. Ordinarily families sell their surplus maize production for extra cash. This year though, most had to dip into that surplus just to survive. In a flash appeal for donor support, the United Nations said that the combined production of cereals in Lesotho is the lowest in ten years, representing just 32% of the average annual harvest. Multiple factors are at the heart of this poor performance, including  acute reduction of arable land, lack of access to inputs and yield-enhancing technology, severe soil erosion as well as increasingly persistent climate change-induced disasters. This has culminated in a situation where only 9% of Lesotho’s land is arable and the ability of the Basotho to cope with climate change and economic shocks has been severely depleted. 

Standing in line with their identity books in hand at agricultural depot in Mafeteng, south-west Lesotho, farmers are happy to collect free seed as part of an UN-run agricultural programme offering seed, fertilizer and training to small-scale farmers on best practice farming methods.  

This is the planting season, which means that as soon as the ground is prepared, farmers can do little but wait for the rain. Makana Makana (40) is an agricultural teacher at a local high school who farms five acres of land with three other families. He proudly shows off his maize fields, which he prepared using only conservation agricultural methods. He will lay down fertilizer and organic manure and when it rains he will plant the seeds, carefully cover them up and wait until harvest. When asked what he will do if it doesn’t rain, he says simply and sternly: “It will rain. It will rain.” 

Unicef is campaigning for the UK government to say how it will provide money for a body that's been set up to help countries like Lesotho adapt to climate change – the Green Climate Fund. These farmers are a first-hand example of how important it is for that fund to be up and running as soon as possible. 

Suzanne Beukes is a communications officer for Unicef. She travelled to Lesotho as part of a UN inter-agency effort to raise awareness about the food security emergency. The views expressed here are her own.