A national crop survey conducted this week by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has found widespread crop failures in the most impoverished areas of Swaziland.
The preliminary findings point to a continuation of food aid, which is currently keeping nearly a third of the population alive.
"We are satisfied with the way food is being distributed in Swaziland, but we are unhappy with crop performance," Mostafa Iman, FAO's representative in Swaziland, told IRIN.
The weather problems of 2003 have been a repeat of last year, the survey team found, meaning a food shortage is likely in 2004.
"Rains were erratic in early summer, and then there was a severe heat wave in late January and early February," Mwita Rukandema, a senior economist from FAO's Global Information and Early Warning Service in Rome, Italy, explained.
Rukandema spent this week touring Swaziland's croplands with a team of local food distribution monitors, who supervise the NGOs that hand out WFP-supplied food.
"The main culprit in crop failures has been a heat wave of the last few weeks. It occurred at a critical time, at the tasseling stage [towards the end of maturation] of maize plants," said Iman.
Last year, drought conditions struck at the plant tasseling stage, destroying 60 percent of the nation's maize crop.
Maize is the Swazi staple food, grown by over 90 percent of subsistence farmers on communal land. Swazi peasant farmers rely exclusively on rainfall for crop growth.
"Sixty percent of farmers followed the agriculture ministry's recommendation, and planted in October and November, when they would usually benefit most from summer rains. They have lost their crops entirely ... Farmers who planted at the beginning of November also fared poorly because of the dry spell," Rukandema said.
Only farmers who planted late, in January and February, may see their crops, which are currently small plants, mature to harvest time. But this will only happen if rains continue to fall through May. Good rains in Swaziland usually cease by April, which is the beginning of autumn in the southern hemisphere.
"Rains have fallen well in many parts of the country, but in the lowveld, where the hunger situation is the worst, weeks have gone by without a single drop. The crops have just withered in the scorching heat," Erika MacLean, emergency coordinator for WFP in Swaziland, told IRIN.
MacLean said the crop survey, which will be followed by a need assessment to project food aid requirements for 2004, indicated a probable extension of the emergency food programme in Swaziland.
"We began distributing food in July last year to 144,000 people. By November, 265,400 were receiving aid, and UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund] was distributing additional aid in the form of school feeding schemes at 80 schools," she said.
Originally mandated to finish operations in January, the emergency programme was extended through March. MacLean said an additional extension was likely.
The Ministry of Agriculture had predicted that by April only 50,000 Swazis would require food aid. The projection was based on a successful maize harvest.
Cautious food distribution organisations made plans to assist at least 100,000 Swazis after that date. This week's national crop survey has vindicated their judgment.
Food distribution efforts are going smoothly. Early warning data has been effective. Order is observed at distribution points. There are a few local media reports of individuals suffering because of lack of food, but famine has been averted.
"I have found that food is being distributed properly and fairly," Malunge Dlamini, a WFP food distribution monitor, told IRIN.
Agriculture ministry statistics show that poor rainfall has become the norm in the hot eastern and southern lowveld. Unless the old ways of subsistence agriculture are reformed, food aid workers said, crop failures and subsequent food scarcity will become a permanent problem.
Development programmes such as introducing irrigation technology to lessen peasant farmers' dependency on rainfall, and the development of co-operatives to raise cash crops, are continuing, but with a lower priority.
"We are in emergency mode now, but the WFP is really about development," said MacLean. "There is a need to make food security a reality, and there are several programmes to achieve that."
One WFP effort is to empower Swazi women in the agriculture sector. For now, however, women are being enlisted to identify infant victims of the food crisis.
"We have a chronic malnutrition problem among the under-fives. It is the women of the community who know who needs what," Maclean said.
An exact measurement of needs would also prevent a surplus of aid.
"We don't want to flood the market with food, and bring about a drop in the price of maize. This would harm farmers of the highveld who have experienced good rains, and depend on the sales of their crops," said MacLean.
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