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Floods wash away the drought

The worst harvest in living memory.
(WFP/FAO)

After two decades of drought the urgent prayers in Swaziland's annual incwala ceremony, a month-long ritual in which ancestral spirits are petitioned for good rains, have been answered with weeks of torrential downpours. Floods now threaten food security.



On 17 November the sacred water party left for the Indian Ocean to collect items required to celebrate the 'Festival of the First Fruits', and now Swaziland's 13 rivers are all overflowing. The last time such rainfall was recorded was 25 years ago in 1984, when a cyclone struck. Too little rain in recent years has left most of the country's roughly one million people dependant on foreign food aid.



Andrew Nsibandze, an agriculture ministry extension officer who travels the country assessing crop performance, said floods were threatening newly planted crops. Small-scale farmers in rural areas were particularly at risk.



"There are farmers unable to enter swamped fields," Nsibandze told IRIN. Pumps to remove water from agricultural land and irrigation equipment had been washed away; roads were out and bridges had collapsed.



Sipho Simelane, Senior Agricultural Officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN: "Most definitely the rains are going to have an effect on agricultural production. We are getting reports ... about flooded fields - newly planted fields that have been washed away."



Smallholder farmers struggled to pay for inputs for the first planting, so buying new seeds and fertilizer for replanting would be beyond the means of most, and the cash-strapped government was in no position to help. "The farmers are on their own," Simelane said. The agriculture minister has not indicated that he would seek emergency assistance for affected farmers.



Transportation and Public Works Minister Nthuthuko Dlamini said the November downpours had caused US$6.7 million in damage to roads and highways - 19 bridges had been destroyed - and the network of rural roads farmers used to bring their crops to market had been severely compromised. Dlamini said only $270,000 was available for infrastructure repair, and he would ask parliament for emergency funding.



"This is unprecedented," said Trevor Shongwe, Chief Water Engineer for the Ministry of Natural Resources. "Those who use river water to water crops should ensure that the water pumps are situated far from the river bank because they may be swept away."



He also cautioned residents whose homes were near rivers to monitor rising water levels - hundreds of traditional mud-and-stick homes had already literally dissolved in the past few weeks of continuous heavy rainfall. According to the UN development Programme, 70 percent of Swazis live on less than a dollar a day.



Fears of anticipated water shortages this summer have been allayed. The abundant rainfall will also raise underground water levels and some boreholes that were dry for years might be revived.



While the sudden excess of water may mean good news for food production and security in months to come, it will bring bad news in the short term if waterlogged crops do not recover.



Excess water has been cascading down the spillways of Maguga Dam in northern Hhohho Province, the nation's largest; the Hawane Dam, which provides water for the capital, Mbabane, was also at 100 percent capacity. Dams in the previously drought-prone eastern lowveld region were between 70 percent and 80 percent full.



However, Jabulani Hlatshwako, Deputy Director of Swaziland's Meteorological Services, noted that "Of concern are new storm fronts that can bring more water after a break."



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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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