Initial estimates of the damage to Lesotho’s already ailing agricultural sector - caused by a year of too much rain followed by a year of too little - suggest that an unprecedented number of small-scale farmers harvested nothing this year.
Heavy rains and flooding cut Lesotho’s maize production by nearly half during the 2010-11 farming season, causing the price of maize meal to increase by 24 percent between March 2011 and March 2012 and putting a heavy strain on the 40 percent of the population already living in extreme poverty.
The 2011-12 season began with a prolonged period of drought which caused many small-scale farmers not to plant at all rather than gamble scarce resources on crops that would be vulnerable to frost.
As a result, what should be a time of plenty has become an extension of the pre-harvest lean season for many. The precise number in need of humanitarian assistance will only become clear when the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) completes its annual food security and vulnerability assessment at the end of June, but a crop forecast by the Bureau of Statistics has already estimated major declines in both total area planted and yields.
“It’s actually worse than last year, and we thought last year was the worst,” said Matseliso Mojaki, the DMA’s acting chief executive. “Maybe those heavy rains washed away some of the soil nutrients so even those who managed to plant didn’t get a good yield.”
According to the crop forecast, the overall area planted in the 2011-2012 agricultural year decreased by nearly 40 percent from the previous year and the total expected production of maize, the staple crop, fell by 77 percent. Yields of sorghum and wheat have also declined significantly.
Survival for many of Lesotho’s subsistence farmers has been precarious for years as soil erosion resulting from poor farming practices, HIV/AIDS and increasingly unpredictable weather have all taken their toll. Although 82 percent of Lesotho’s population of 1.8 million engage in some form of agriculture, the amount this contributes to the country’s GDP has declined from 25 percent in the 1980s to 10 percent in the last decade and 7.7 percent following last year’s floods, according to the Bureau of Statistics.
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The cumulative effect of two poor or non-existent harvests on top of years of slowly declining productivity has pushed more and more Basotho to start employing what Hassan Abdi, a programme officer with the World Food Programme (WFP) describes as “negative coping mechanisms” such as selling off assets, taking children out of school and reducing meals.
Makhahliso Chabeli, a subsistence farmer from the country’s southeastern Mohale’s Hoek District, has sold off one cow a year over the past four years to pay for her childrens’ schooling. But following a particularly disastrous farming season and left with just three cattle, she doubts her three younger children will complete secondary school.
No equipment for ploughing
Others in Chabeli’s community have already sold all their livestock and some have started selling their furniture and even their land, while many of those that still have land cannot afford to farm it.
“We have two fields, but we haven’t farmed for three years now,” said Thato Hatsi, 19. “We don’t have the equipment to plough.”
In a normal year, Hatsi’s mother labours in her neighbours’ fields for an income, but in a year in which so few planted, even this work has dried up.
Abdi of WFP noted that many rural dwellers have resorted to moving into the country’s urban areas. “You’re seeing abnormal numbers of people in town with nothing to sell, just begging,” he told IRIN.
For Chabeli and Hatsi there is some temporary relief in the form of emergency food assistance through WFP which is reaching 40,000 people in the two districts of Mohale’s Hoek and neighbouring Quthing.
About half the beneficiaries, including 64 households in Chabeli’s community, are earning their monthly rations of maize, pulses and vegetable oil through a Food for Work programme that encourages participants to work on projects that will benefit the entire community. Chabeli’s community elected to work on shoring up a `donga’ (ravine caused by soil erosion) that contributes to recurrent flooding in the area.
“There’s a lot of hunger,” said Kelebone Sephelane, who along with Chabeli was chosen by the community to help supervise the four-month project. “We’re thankful for this project, but there’s nothing to do after July [when it ends]. We’re pleading for it to be extended.”
However, Abdi said an extension would depend on WFP finding additional funding which was likely to take several months.
In the long term, addressing Lesotho’s chronic and increasing food security will mean helping subsistence and smallholder farmers prepare and adapt to increasing variability in rainfall linked to climate change.
In a paper released last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that climate-related stresses have long been prevalent in Lesotho, but “What has changed in recent times… is the apparent increasing frequency, magnitude and duration of climatic shocks, leaving little or no time to recover from the last event.”
Mojaki of the DMA admitted that the country was still in the process of developing strategies to deal with climate change and associated natural disasters. “Most of the time we’re reacting to shocks as they come,” she told IRIN. “I think we do need a long-term strategy, but at the moment implementation due to lack of resources is the problem.”
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She noted that the national disaster management fund had been empty for several years and that her department’s budget was a mere US$106,000 in 2011, rising to $710,000 this year.
FAO together with the Ministry of Forestry and Land Reclamation recently completed a two-year pilot programme to strengthen farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change in three areas of the country. In Mabalane village in Mohale’s Hoek, which is one of the driest parts of the country, Moorosi Nchejana was one of 40 local farmers selected by the community to participate in the project. His experiences with poultry farming, growing fruit trees and collecting rain water to irrigate a vegetable plot are being closely watched by the rest of the community.
So far, the installation of a rain water tank and drip irrigation system at Nchejana’s homestead has been the difference between growing just enough vegetables to feed his family and having a surplus to sell and pay for other necessities. At a cost of just under $200, the system is relatively cheap, but still beyond the means of most of Nchejana’s neighbours.
“Most people would want it, but most wouldn’t be able to afford it,” he commented.
The extent to which such projects can be scaled up to other parts of the country and prove sustainable will depend on government buy-in and long-term budget allocations, notes the FAO paper.