While aid agencies and the Swazi government scramble to keep a major catastrophe at bay, the mounting food crisis means more and more Swazis can only cope by drastically scaling down food intake and scouring the fields for edible weeds.
About 40 percent of Swaziland's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages. For most, coping with the food scarcity means cutting back on depleted consumption, already endangering the health of thousands according to Comparisons of Coping Mechanisms 2006/2007, a recently released joint annual study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP).
"Over 50 percent of adults are eating less. Over 60 percent are limiting or reducing meal portions. Over 30 percent of the population is skipping meals entirely," the report said. "Those not eating for an entire day or consuming a green [wild] crop, grew - over 30 percent of Swazis are consuming more than the usual amount of wild foods."
Samantha Simelane, a widow with two daughters, is one of them. "We Swazis have been eating this umbhidvo [a type of indigenous spinach] for generations," she said, picking her way through a small field beside her homestead in rural Sigombeni, 20km north of the central commercial town, Manzini.
Simelane has always supplemented her diet with wild plants, but these roots and weeds, eaten without the maizemeal that is the Swazis' staple food, are now often the only meal she and her children have each day.
"The children cry that their bellies are hurting them; I feel so sorry for them," she said. "I am famished myself, so I feel weak most times, but I tell my children if we eat what little we have instead of stretching it out, we will surely starve at some point."
Worst Harvest Ever Swaziland's 2007 maize harvest is the worst on record at just 26,000 tons Harvest is 1/3rd of already-low 5-year average and 60 percent less than 2006 Over half the population - 555,000 people - will need food assistance from now until the next main harvest in April 2008 According to WFP field observations, the poorest households currently have no cereals in stock or not enough to last a month The cereal import requirement is 173,800 tons 4,800 tons of aid is already in stock or underway and 129,000 tons are expected to be imported commercially Source: WFP
The drought that has persisted since 2002 became significantly worse in 2007, while HIV/AIDS has reduced food production by eliminating adult farmers and household heads. According to UN estimates, 33.4 percent of Swazis between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive - the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.
The Swaziland Drought Flash Appeal, launched in July to request assistance from international donors, warned: "Poor households are reported to have engaged in negative coping strategies, including transactional sex, leading to a higher incidence of sexually transmitted infections and HIV."
The document commented that "the drought is also likely to have an indirect impact on the already severe HIV/AIDS situation, as patients on antiretroviral drugs are expected to discontinue taking drugs in the absence of food."
In a nation rife with poverty, where two-thirds of the population live below the bread line, government figures estimate that 23 percent of children have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The rising orphan population places an additional burden on already overstretched resources of extended families, putting even more children at risk.
Eating into next year's harvest
A large number of small-scale farming families, who comprise 80 percent of the population, have been forced to sell farming implements for medicines needed by relatives living with AIDS. "There has been an increase in the sales of assets, which reduces potential earnings. People cannot go into their fields to cultivate because they have sold their hoes and other assets," the FAO/WFP report said.
Abdoulaye Balde, the WFP Country Representative, agreed. "HIV/AIDS is one of the factors contributing towards a decline in agricultural production. This is because when people are sick there is insufficient manpower to plough crop fields, or funds to purchase farming inputs, since priority is given to buying medication or providing health care."
He told IRIN: "A recent study has shown that if the current trends are not halted, only one in four children born today will reached the age of 40 in Swaziland."
At the beginning of the year WFP projected that 220,000 people would be in need of assistance, but has since increased this figure to 365,000 beneficiaries receiving assistance from October 2007 until the next harvest in April 2008. In the appeal to the international community, "a total of over US$15.5 million was requested, with food accounting for about $5.3 million of this," Balde said.
The UN agencies in Swaziland have responded to the food crisis by scaling up operations to reach as many of the most vulnerable people as possible. The FAO is currently in the process of distributing vouchers worth $43 each to farmers, and about 18,000 households in the Lowveld have already been reached.
Balde commended the Swazi government, noting that "$23.6 million was pledged by the government in response to its declaration of the drought as a national disaster. The combination of the WFP assistance to 365,000 people and government food distribution to 190,000 people mean that a total of 555,000 beneficiaries will receive assistance in the months leading up to the next maize harvest in April 2008."
Balde said, "Short-term challenges mainly centre on convincing donors to provide funding to WFP and UN Agencies in general. In the long term ... it will require an enormous concerted effort to haul Swaziland out of its current state of food insecurity and vulnerability."
Describing the crippling combination of HIV/AIDS, drought and poverty as a "silent Tsunami" ravaging most of the Southern Africa region, he added that "food insecurity in Swaziland is a very complex issue and caused by a multitude of factors, all of which need to be addressed if the situation is going to improve."