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"The land is blowing away"

[Lesotho] Green field turned into lunar wasteland by soil erosion.
Soil erosion damage: Scientists in 42 African countries hope to map areas at risk of soil degradation and facilitate appropriate interventions that could help to curb food insecurity (IRIN)

Lesotho's food shortage is said to be the most visible manifestation of the country's humanitarian crisis, but to the eye the destructive power of rampant soil erosion is more apparent.

People emaciated by hunger are hard to find - though skinny cattle are common in most districts - but lunar landscapes of eroded gullies are multiplying at an alarming rate, say conservationists, and are wiping out croplands.

Even organisations like the UN Children's Fund and AIDS groups that normally do not handle environmental issues, list soil erosion as a factor in Lesotho’s humanitarian crisis, one that is making their mitigation efforts harder.

"The land is blowing away. The drought is making it worse," said World Food Programme (WFP) programme assistant, Thabo Khobkwo.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security is compiling statistics on acreage lost annually due to soil erosion. But every farmer and district official already has a bleak assessment of the crisis.

Standing at the edge of a vast, jagged canyon created by erosion, Khobkwo said: "This has happened in just three years at this spot. Most of the country's soil erosion has come during the past 10 years - in the past five years alone, the amount of land in Lesotho capable of growing crops has dropped from 10 percent to 9 percent."

Population pressures have prompted the cultivation of marginal lands that are often semi-arid, mostly rocky earth, or have little usable topsoil. Once disturbed, this thin patina of topsoil is easily blown away during winter windstorms when the fields lie fallow. Desertification is a result, or deep gullies gouged by flash floods.

During the present drought, which has sucked the moisture out of the earth, dusty soil collapses into widening canyons several metres deep. Crevices like seismic faults cut through fields, and farmers must build stone bridges to portions of land they wish to cultivate. Some fields look like archipelagos of plant life surrounded by fissures.

Collapsing land has undermined roads and bridges, compromising infrastructure and proving a costly set-back for development plans to assist impoverished rural areas.

"Because of poverty and AIDS – maybe the household head is a returning miner who is ill – families are taking measures to earn income they never had to take before, even though these are detrimental to their future livelihoods," said James Bedell, a WFP field officer for the Mafeteng District in the southwest of the country.

"A family will collect cow dung that used to be left in a field. They burn the dung for fuel, or sell it. The fields are robbed of replenishing nourishment. People chop down trees, also for fuel or to sell, and the exposed earth left behind, which was once held in place by tree roots, is washed away with rains," Bedell explained.

Wind-blown dust makes for spectacular sunsets, and Lesotho's have been dazzling this month. But beneath the orange and red hues lie broken landscapes that will require major and expensive land reclamation efforts to make whole and productive.

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:

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