In-depth: United Nations Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Support Office for the Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa

LESOTHO: This year is the worst

Photo: WFP
Malianano Mafereka
JOHANNESBURG, 8 March 2004 (IRIN In-Depth) - “This is nothing like last year,” ‘Malianano Mafereka sighed, dismissing the comparison with a quick shake of her head. “Last year the drought was bad but it was nothing like now. This year is the worst.”

It is a view shared by all the inhabitants of La Hepolesa village in Lesotho’s southern district of Mafeteng. And it is easy to see why.

The prolonged drought has scorched the soil, leaving it dry and dusty and dead. Most of the fields have not even been ploughed, let alone planted. They have simply been abandoned.

“I did not even bother to till my field this year,” she said, pointing to her barren plot on the edge of the village. “What is the point without rain? It would just have been a waste of time.”

Unfortunately, ‘Malianano’s winter crop was also destroyed by the drought. So she finds herself with seven children to feed and no food stocks to fall back on.

Widowed in 2000, when her husband was killed during a dispute over grazing lands, ‘Malianano also has no way of earning enough money to provide for her family.

“I have tried everything to make some money. I have even brewed home-made beer but it is never enough,” she stressed. “I don’t know how we would survive without the food from WFP.”

As a single parent headed household with 7 children between the ages of 18 and 10, ‘Malianano’s family is one of the most vulnerable and has been receiving WFP food aid for almost a year.

Thousands of others have been receiving assistance for even longer than that – some from as far back as 2002 when WFP first began providing aid to vulnerable people in Mafeteng through its NGO Implementing Partner, The Salvation Army.

And now it looks as if operations will have to continue long after the end of the current emergency operation in June 2004.

“I wish that we did not have to live off WFP food,” said Malianano. “But we have no choice. Hopefully, the next harvest will be good. But until then, WFP is our only hope.”

Along with five other countries in southern Africa, Lesotho is struggling to cope with a second successive year of severe food shortages, which have left over 300,000 people in need of assistance.

The food crisis is the result of a complex web of factors, including drought, the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty and worsening soil erosion.

“Over the past two years, WFP and its donors and partners have managed to prevent a crisis in Lesotho from turning into a catastrophe,” says Techeste Zergaber, WFP Country Director in Lesotho.

Since launching its emergency operations in Lesotho in July 2002, WFP has distributed over 48,000 MT of food aid to over 600,000 people.

“WFP has successfully provided food aid to over 1/3rd of the entire population of Lesotho,” adds Zergarber. “We achieved this despite a host of serious logistical problems, especially high up in the more remote mountain areas. We even used donkeys in some cases to ensure that the food got to those in need.”

However, the crisis is far from over. Indeed, it is likely to become even more acute.

“The situation is worse than in 2002. Back then WFP was covering eight districts out of 10 but this year the whole country is affected,” adds Zergaber.

In February, the government declared a state of emergency. After the almost complete failure of the winter crop, it now seems likely that the main maize harvest in April/May will be far below normal due to the ongoing drought.

Latest estimates indicate that at least 600,000 – and possibly as many as 700,000 – people will need food assistance up until the next maize harvest in 2005.

The government has appealed for increased international assistance. WFP is considering scaling up its operations to help meet the rising needs.
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