Michelle Carter, Country Director of CARE South Africa/Lesotho talks about the current food crisis in the small kingdom of Lesotho
The small kingdom of Lesotho is experiencing a severe food crisis for many months. But first of all: where is Lesotho located?
Most people do not know where Lesotho is. Lesotho is called the Mountainous Kingdom and is surrounded by South Africa. It is known for diamonds, skiing (yes, skiing in Africa!) fantastic pointy hats and the wool blankets that people wear.
Given its mountainous terrain, it is tough to eke out a living through farming. It is a small country but 725,000 people, roughly 40 percent of the population, do not have enough to eat right now. Lesotho’s food security has declined alarmingly for the second year in a row. The consecutive impact of drought and late rains during this last cropping season has added to the increasingly vulnerable situation of rural Lesotho. The combined production of cereals in Lesotho represents only some 32 percent of the average harvest of the last ten years, a decade already highly impacted by climate change impacts. CARE has worked in Lesotho since 1968, we have a deep relationship with the communities here and we are well-respected by the government. We have been compelled to act given the gravity of the situation.
Which groups have been the most vulnerable during this food crisis?
This emergency is pushing a large number of already vulnerable people over the edge. The Government of Lesotho has estimated that 275,000 need urgent assistance. Some people in Lesotho are already malnourished – 39 percent of children for example are chronically malnourished. Women are experiencing higher levels of violence as their men can no longer handle the anger and frustration of not bringing home money for the family. Also, given the high levels of HIV, women-headed households, children-headed households and grandparents taking care of young children are at a particular risk unless we urgently act to give them a boost to survive this difficult period.
Do you see this year’s poor harvest as an isolated event, or as part of a larger trend?
People in Lesotho have already had experienced a very difficult economic situation over the last few years, since the main forms of income – remittances from miners – has dried up. The country’s men used to work in the mines in South Africa but many mines have closed. Unfortunately, like the poor in many other parts of the world, these families also face rising food prices and an increasing cost of living.
Just as buying food at the market has become more difficult, farming has become more unpredictable. Many farmers in Lesotho speak about how they cannot predict the seasons like they used to: the effects of climate change are already being felt.
The country also has the world’s third-highest prevalence of HIV, 23.9 percent of the population is affected with the deadly virus. This has devastated many families, leaving them more vulnerable during the current food crisis. Unfortunately this threatens to become a dangerous cycle, as insufficient nutrition also makes HIV medicines less effective.
What has been done so far to support those affected? What gaps remain?
CARE – along with our partners, World Vision and Catholic Relief Service – was one of the first organizations to ring the alarm bells and raise awareness that this would be a bad year for Lesotho given the rainfall situation. Recognizing that something needed to be done early on, CARE was the first one to distribute seeds. There was incredible joy when people felt that their pleas for help were being heard. At the beginning of February we also distributed cash vouchers so the most vulnerable people could buy food in the markets, and we saw people dancing because they would be able to buy some maize and corn. We also use these distributions as an opportunity to educate men and women about the dangers of violence in the homes or of young women having to sell the only thing they have left – their bodies – so that they can eat.
CARE will continue distributing vouchers and we plan to distribute cash to 2,000 together with the World Food Program (WFP) to the most vulnerable households following their participation in a number of environmental rehabilitation activities.
But there are many gaps: we have plans to assist the more affected households by establishing vegetable gardens, promoting conservation agriculture, raising awareness on gender based violence, and distributing more cash vouchers to help people buy food. We are also doing everything possible to share what is going on in Lesotho so that everybody can help!
Do you feel this crisis has been overlooked?
Unfortunately, there are so many demands and emergencies in the world today that it is extremely difficult to attract people’s attention on this tiny country. CARE and other organizations have gone to various governments for support to the emergency but many of them have either given too little or the funding primarily went to the United Nations and the Government, not to NGOs like CARE. And most of the money that has been given is for immediate food. While this is important, we also need sustainable, long-term support to help people recover and get back on their feet.
Founded in 1945, CARE is a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty and providing lifesaving assistance in emergencies. CARE places special focus on working alongside poor girls and women because, equipped with the proper resources, they have the power to help lift whole families and entire communities out of poverty.