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Prime minister declares famine emergency

[Lesotho] Terracing.
Lesotho lacks arable land and local production cannot meet demand (FAO)

Lesotho's Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili this week formally declared a state of famine in a bid to trigger donor assistance to his impoverished mountain kingdom.

The devaluation of the local currency against the US dollar, and bad weather, has meant basic commodities are in short supply and often beyond the means of ordinary Basotho. The country has a high unemployment rate and official figures say that half of the population of two million are living in poverty.

Prices of basic commodities in the capital, Maseru, have doubled in a year, according to a study by the World Food Programme (WFP).

The WFP's acting officer in charge in Maseru, Viney Jain, told IRIN: "Lesotho has always been a food importer, local production accounts for less than 50 percent of requirements in a good year. But with [recent] drought and natural disasters people now have no coping mechanism [no means of obtaining food]."

Part of the reason for the generally low agricultural output was the lack of arable land. "Only nine percent of the country is arable land, the rest is all hills," Jain said.

The declaration of a state of famine by Mosisili was broadcast on local radio on Monday. The prime minister said Lesotho was facing famine because of a number of factors.

"The country has for a number of years been experiencing structural food deficits. Persistent drought, hailstorms, tornados, excessive rains and other unfavourable natural forces have resulted in continued food deficits over the years," he said.

A poor local exchange rate against the dollar "has resulted in price increases of imports and other goods, including grain, thus further aggravating the problem," he added.

With regard to crop estimates, Mosisili said preliminary indicators are that there will be a very low harvest of cereal in 2002/03, resulting in a cereal food deficit of about 220,000 mt.

"The high unemployment rate, estimated at over 30 percent, and the high level of poverty, estimated at over 50 percent of two million Basotho, have aggravated the prevailing famine situation in the country," he added.

Household purchasing power had generally fallen across the country, resulting in families "surviving without food or on one meal per day". Mosisili said shortages in some areas were beginning to claim lives and was increasing malnutrition among children.

"Moreover, HIV/AIDS is claiming more and more lives because some of the infected persons cannot have nutritious meals which could prolong their lives," he said.

These circumstances forced the government to declare a state of famine in the country.

"Government, through various agencies and with the assistance of the Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] and the WFP, is currently undertaking rapid but detailed surveys to assess the situation country-wide. [This is] with a view to obtaining exact figures of people affected, their location, amount of food required and the type of assistance needed," the prime minister said.

In the meantime, the government had set aside US $2 million for immediate intervention that would include providing food aid, supplementary feeding to under-fives and a subsidy for vulnerable households for one year starting from 1 May 2002.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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