LESOTHO: Mountain kingdom faces humanitarian calamity
Women collecting food aid rations - more than a quarter of the population need relief assistance
MASERU, 11 February (PLUSNEWS) - The tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho is suffering a calamity. Quietly, away from the glare of the international media, it is struggling to cope with a series of deep, interlinked crises that are testing the capacity of the government and the humanitarian community.
The most obvious challenge is the country's food crisis - more than a quarter of the 2.2 million population are in need of food aid. But poverty and AIDS make this emergency all the more complicated and severe, and recovery a long-term project rather than a problem solved by a single good harvest.
"We don't call it an emergency, we call it a humanitarian crisis, because what is happening is a convergence of factors. The food shortage is the most visible aspect, but AIDS - a major factor - is invisible. Poverty is less visible," explained Bertrand Desmoulins, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) country representative.
"My work is with children, and any one child's situation is unique. How did the child become vulnerable? We must take this approach to ask, 'How did Lesotho become vulnerable?'"
FOOD SHORTAGE: THE IMMEDIATE CRISIS
Landlocked Lesotho, buried within South Africa, is noted for its picturesque, snow-capped mountains and people on horseback draped in colourful blankets. But when snows failed to fall this past winter, humanitarian organisations, already preparing for summer food shortages, knew they were faced with an increasingly dire situation.
"The ski slopes were closed, which never happened, and there was no accumulation of snow to make run-off that feeds rivers and replenishes groundwater tables," Mads Lofvall, deputy director for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Lesotho, told PlusNews.
As a result, the shortfall of food due to poor harvests for a second consecutive year meant that emergency food projections considerably underestimated the situation. Some 38,700 mt of food was originally ordered for the most vulnerable section of the population, to last from July 2003 to June 2004. But that estimate proved to be 19,000 mt short of actual needs.
The original requirements were made on the assumption that the country would receive a normal winter rainfall, allowing the farming community to make good some of the production losses of last year's poor harvest. "Unfortunately, this was not the case. In fact, the contrary happened. This winter, severe drought conditions started as far back as April 2003," a WFP report noted.
A Western diplomat told PlusNews: "There is no chance for agriculture to recover this year. There were no summer rains until January, and by then it was too late. There are a few pockets of production, but they are negligible. Most fields are stunted crops, good for animal fodder but nothing more."
The primary impact of the low rainfall was felt at household level, where vegetables withered in home gardens cultivated during the winter. "Great majorities of poor households were not able to supplement their daily diet with vegetables and pulses," the WFP report said.
The low moisture content in the soil has exacerbated erosion, and impoverished pastures. Although a smattering of rains this past month improved prospects in some districts, the livestock sector is in overall decline owing to the poor quality of grazing.
Sheep scab is also widespread, because the late delivery of chemicals by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security meant sheep and goats could not be dipped. Wool from affected sheep cannot be sold, with serious consequences for small herd owners and their ability to provide for their households.
The number of people in need of emergency food relief has risen to 600,000 - nearly double the original projection of 328,000 - and the number of underweight children visiting clinics assisted by WFP is increasing. UN agencies are planning to launch a multi-year Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) at the conclusion of a regional consolidated appeal due to end in June 2004.
"The meteorological services expect an improvement in rainfall during the current month of February. However, it is anybody's guess how much impact such delayed rainfall would have on summer planting that is already at its tail-end," said WFP's Lofvall.
The Ministry of Agriculture has noted heavy pest infestations that are reducing crop production in the areas most affected by drought.
Justice Ramoko, an agricultural field officer in the Mahale's Hoek district south of the capital, Maseru, squats in a sun-baked field amid the stunted stalks of sorghum, a crop noted for its drought tolerance. Planted in late November, the plants are emaciated from this year's relentless dry spell.
"In addition to lack of water, soil conditions vary from metre to metre. Too much land is marginal, and should not be cultivated. Chiefs give this land to people to farm because there is no other land," Ramoko said.
The district averages 12 bags of maize, beans, sorghum, sunflower or wheat production per acre in a year of normal rainfall. This year, Ramoko said, two bags per acre are being harvested.
A new government report on AIDS is expected to note an increase in the number of people estimated to be HIV positive. "The official UN estimate is 31 percent, but that was based on data from 2002. A surveillance study preliminary report has put the figure at closer to 36 percent," a diplomatic source said.
HIV/AIDS was made the centrepiece for UN assistance strategies last year. In October the government required all public sector institutions to mainstream HIV/AIDS throughout their plans and programmes. Humanitarian organisations hailed the government's commitment, while the Global Fund allocated $12 million to AIDS and TB initiatives.
"We cannot separate HIV/AIDS and the food shortage situation, because they are interrelated," stressed Lofvall.
"AIDS contributes to the breakdown of the traditional family, sometimes leaving child-headed households that are incapable of working the fields. AIDS is claiming the lives of workers in commercial agriculture. The food shortage means people who are HIV positive do not have the full and well-balanced diets needed to extend their lives, and provide nutrition to fight off opportunistic diseases," said one aid worker.
Limakatso Chisepo, social welfare director at the Ministry of Health, wants government officials to set an example in AIDS mitigation efforts.
"There is still a lot of denial, even at the highest levels. All the principal secretaries at the ministries agreed to HIV testing - but we were furious because they then wouldn't disclose their status, and they refused to be tested locally, because they said they feared there would be a lack of confidentiality. They wanted to go to South Africa. We said, 'You are government leaders! Why do you do this in a way that looks like cheating?' If this was to set an example that others were supposed to follow, it was making the testing situation worse," Chisepo said.
"We have a lot of underage mothers - 13-year-old girls giving birth. This increases HIV/AIDS, these children who are sexually active, and it is terrible. Government has not provided antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to date," explained Magdelena Moshi, WFP emergency relief coordinator.
In addition to a lack of ARVs, in the entire country there are only two CD-4 machines (which count white blood cells, thereby measuring the strength of a person's immune system). The majority of patients who need to begin an ARV regimen have no way of determining when their CD-4 level falls below 200, the recognised point at which ARV therapy should start.
A major contributor to the spread of AIDS in the country has been returning migrant workers - men who were employed across the border in South African mines, many of whom have since been retrenched as the industry restructured. Once considered the luckiest of people for having relatively well-paid jobs, former miners illustrate the interlinkage between AIDS and poverty that is contributing to Lesotho's humanitarian crisis.
EX-MINERS: LINKS IN A CHAIN OF HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
"When the miners were sent home from South Africa, their wages to support their families disappeared. Lesotho could never raise all the food it needed to support its people, but miners' remittances meant their families could purchase food imported into the country. No more," said Desmoulins, UNICEF's country representative.
Thousands of miners, unable to find work in Lesotho's small industrial sector (unemployment stands at 35 percent) returned to rural homes, where they petitioned local chiefs for plots of land to cultivate. With suitable land scarce, chiefs allocated marginal land, whose unfitness for raising crops was worsened by drought.
"While working in South African mines, the men lived in single-sex hostels, with decent salaries to go to places for sex with prostitutes. In the 1970s they would get sexually transmitted diseases. Today, it's AIDS," said Desmoulins.
Lesotho in unique among Southern African countries for having more HIV-positive men than women.
The men came home and infected their wives, and other women. They fell ill, and could not earn a living. Instead of being an asset to the family, they become a burden. There was no money for food, and this put more pressure on emergency food relief efforts.
"The men with AIDS have to be taken care of, but the wife must go out to find work - who looks after the man? It is usually a daughter who is taken out of school to do this. The problem now shifts, because it is very difficult for a girl who leaves school early and stays away for some years to ever go back, unless there is some government programme to directly address this," Desmoulins noted.
Another generation is endangered, even if they avoid contracting AIDS, and the cycle of poverty continues.
FUNDAMENTAL SOLUTIONS FOR UNDERLYING CAUSES
Some government planners anticipate a policy that encourages people to vacate marginal or unproductive land, with the possible end of food assistance as one inducement to relocation.
"Before the drought, five years ago, most of the country didn't need food aid, and we concentrated on the mountainous north. If weather patterns normalise, the lowlands will continue raising food. But in the mountains, chronic food shortages will continue," said WFP's Moshoi.
"The [Maluti] mountains are beautiful, but every winter it freezes, and there is a food crisis," said Chisepo. "I ask, 'Why don't they come down?' Just because they have a few animals, and there is some grazing, they are endangering their lives."
Lesotho's profitable participation in the US trade initiative, the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), has brought tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, a rapid expansion of Maseru's industrial area, and new industrial parks in Mafeteng (west), Quthing (southeast) and other districts.
"There is potential for the industrial sector, such as the garment manufacturers, to replace jobs lost by miners, although the wage scale is not yet the same," said one Asian businessman who supplies buttons for a Taiwanese clothing factory that exports to the United States.
Government solutions to address underlying causes for the food crisis are both under consideration and, in some cases, already effected. The days may be numbered for sheep farming - a holdover from colonial days when great herds were driven through Southern Africa - and the mono-cropping of maize.
Due to overgrazing, agricultural land has been compromised. Mono-cropping, where small landholder farmers grow maize, the country's staple food, and are disdainful of growing anything else, has leeched the soil of nutrients. The government had encouraged maize farming by subsidising seeds and tractors.
As a result, in a mountainous country where only 10 percent of the land is arable, agricultural production declined by 40 percent in the last 20 years. In a change of policy that recognised this reality, maize cultivation is no longer subsidised, or encouraged.
"The country must realise the land can't sustain two million subsistence farmers. There is a need for cash crops – cabbages grow well here and require little irrigation – and traditional crops that are suited for the climate," commented a senior Western diplomat.
"We need funds. We need assistance. We need to be on the radar, for the world to understand our situation. Lesotho is off the beaten path, and few people know what is going on here," lamented Desmoulins.
LESOTHO: Testing times for rural households
LESOTHO: "The land is blowing away"