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Drought leaves Lesotho reeling


…as World Food Programme battles the elements to provide for needy communities     

‘Makhopotso Mothusi


At just seven years of age, Teboho Ramokaka of Ha-Mapota village in Berea district, is aware life has become harder since the death of his father in 2014.

While still in mourning, Teboho started his first grade in January 2015 and found himself braving the scorching heat that affected all parts of Lesotho between October and December the same year.

Not only did the heat, which sometimes reached over 40 degrees Celsius (ºC) add to his grief as he walked from school every afternoon, it also did its worst when it dried the vegetables in the family garden, their maize crop and also dried-up the river he crossed each schoolday.

Teboho also noticed providing for the family had become an arduous task for his mother. Concerned, he came up with an idea to alleviate the strain from his mother by sharing with his young brother a lunch-meal he receives at school each day.

Since the schools opened last month, Teboho has been eating a portion of his food at school and keeping the other half for his hungry, two-year-old brother at home.

“My brother likes the maize-meal and beans we eat at school. It tastes much better than the maize-meal we eat with Theepe (a wild vegetable) here at home,” he says with a smile.

In Lesotho, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) is working with the government in providing food to 250,000 learners in primary schools and 50,000 children in preschools throughout the country. Teboho is one of the learners benefitting from the School Meals Programme, which provides two nutritious meals per day. However, with the drought, which left many farming families facing hunger, providing food in schools will help boost the attendance of children from food insecure families. Many affected children like Teboho are also likely to stretch this intervention to help the young ones back home.

The long dry spell that hit Lesotho and many other parts of southern Africa in 2015, has left the Mountain Kingdom facing one of its worst food crises in decades. The Government of Lesotho has declared a state of drought emergency and appealed for food, financial and technical assistance from the international community.

Although some moderate rains were received in most parts of the country last month, there are communities still battling for potable water with reports of water-related common assaults perpetrated mainly on women, in many parts of the country.

Hundreds of farmers scattered across the country did not bother to plant after taking note of information provided by the Lesotho Meteorological Services since September 2015. These will not harvest anything in May/June 2016.

Despite the recent rains, which managed to improve rangelands and turned green much of the once-parched land in some parts of the country, the devastation caused by the El Niño-induced drought is visible in the bulk of the farming areas, which are either fallow or have hopelessly withered crops.

The lowlands, where much of the cereals are normally produced, are the hardest hit while a few parts in the highlands show signs of promise for the next harvest, which is due in three to four months.

The strong drought comes at a time when many farmers in Lesotho are yet to recover from two successive crop failures. The Lesotho Vulnerability Assessment Committee in June 2015 reported that 464,000 people were in need of food assistance until June 2016, ironically when very poor harvests are expected. According to analysts in the food sector, this will further prolong the food insecurity situation and also increase the number of those in need of food and nutrition support from June 2016 to the next harvest in June 2017, provided the country will experience favourable weather conditions.

The Disaster Management Authority last week led a joint rapid assessment of the impact of the drought on various sectors throughout the country. The results expected this week, will inform interventions based on the national drought response plan.

Many sectors, including health, have been affected, with some health centres closing temporarily while others are still limiting services provided.  In the livestock sector, there are reports of hundreds of animals that have died due to thirst, lack of food and in some cases, diseases such as anthrax, in the last quarter of 2015.

A 28-year-old livestock farmer, Nkali Nkali of Ha-Mpusi village in Berea district, is hoping he will not lose his 25 emaciated cattle after writing off his entire maize-crop. It breaks his heart to see his animals, which are also his main source of livelihood, in such a bad state. “An Agricultural Extension Services Officer advised me to sell some of my cattle,” he says, adding he feels selling more than he had planned would mean many wasted years and a lost investment.

“I am currently only selling two cows, which were severely affected by the drought,” says Mr Nkali who seems unconvinced this was a good idea.

“I am worried because the prices are not good. If I had sold this large bull last year, it would have fetched me not less than 10,000 maloti. With this drought I will be lucky to get M5000.”

As Mr Nkali scratches his head on how to save his livestock and be able to squeeze buyers for good offers for his two wasted cows, another 49-year-old farmer from Ramonyaloe village, Matabeta Sejake, says last November she re-planted seven fields of maize, beans and sorghum. The mother of three only has two lines of bean plants to show for all her efforts.

“We have nothing, the food we harvested last year can last only a few weeks,” says Ms Sejake.

Her hopes lie in her son working as a street vendor in South Africa. He sometimes sends some money enough to buy basic necessities such as maize-meal, salt and beans. “Food is now very expensive and it’s difficult to stretch the money to buy other requirements such as soap,” she says.

‘MaGerald Mokhose, a farmer based in Ha Maboeane village explains she decided to replant sorghum for the third time when it rained last month.

“The crop has improved and I pray that frost does not come early and affect the sorghum,” says Ms Mokose. The 62-year-old mother-of-three says her family finished all the food they had harvested in 2015. To support her family in hard times like these, she usually does some ‘piece jobs’.

“But this year there are no jobs. If at all you are lucky to get the ‘piece job’, the payment will be very little because many people here do not have money,” she says.

The drought is also affecting the most vulnerable people on antiretroviral therapy and Tuberculosis (TB) treatment. Many fear the consequences of taking drugs on empty stomachs or a poor diet.

That is why it has not been easy for ‘Mathato Moeketsi (64) of Ha Mapota village who is on antiretroviral treatment. Weighing just 41kilogrammes, Moeketsi is wasted and explains, with the little money she earns as a part-time domestic worker, she has to look after her son and grandson. They can hardly afford a decent meal.

“The rains we have received have provided relief because we now have Theepe vegetables, which we now eat with papa (maize meal),” says Moeketsi. A peach tree in her yard has also produced some fruits, but they are not yet ripe. However, this has not stopped her from prematurely harvesting them before cooking them to eat with papa.

“I am boiling the peaches and adding a little sugar to improve the taste,” says Ms Moeketsi.

Health workers at Koali Clinic are concerned about the wellbeing of many vulnerable HIV patients in the eight villages under their care. ‘Mathabo Mofammere, a clinician, says food-shortage is rife due to the drought that has affected food production in homestead gardens. “We are concerned about the health of many patients on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment because although their CD4 count is high, they do not look clinically healthy. We suspect this could be the result of a poor diet,” says Ms Mofammere.

She explains the clinic has been struggling for water from September last year and has since closed the waiting mothers’ unit for pregnant women, in addition to stopping delivering babies.

WFP Country Director, Ms Mary Njoroge, says while the water situation has slightly improved following the rains, there is very little hope for crops.

“The rains came very late because the planting window has closed for all the main crops,” says Ms Njoroge.

As a result, she says, this season, not only are many farmers unable to grow their own food but also agriculture-related employment opportunities were lost in the last four months.

“It is also important to understand that some families have already depleted their foodstocks from the last poor harvest in 2015 and are having to buy amid high food prices.”

Ms Njoroge explains WFP is currently mobilising additional resources from its partners to meet the increasing food needs triggered by the El Niño drought. El Niño is a periodic climatic phenomenon characterised by inadequate rain in some parts of the world and floods in others.


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