Food crisis aggravates the already massive social challenges Lesotho faces

By Suzanne Beukes

VAN ROOI, Lesotho, 28 November 2012 – Since losing her two daughters to HIV/AIDS – “this disease which is affecting everyone,” she says – 75-year-old Puseletso Tsiu has been forced to eke out a living for herself and her three orphaned grandchildren by doing piecework.

Tears stream from her eyes as she describes how much more difficult putting food on the table has become for her since food crisis gripped the small, landlocked, mountainous country of Lesotho.

In desperate times, stretching slim resources

In Lesotho, the effects of two consecutive years of floods and heavy rains followed by a drought have been amplified by rising food prices, especially for staple foods such as maize. Families like Ms. Tsiu’s, already struggling to make ends meet, have fallen on even harder times.

The government estimates that about 725,000 people, a third of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. The food crisis is aggravating the already massive social challenges Lesotho faces, including HIV/AIDS. The country has the third highest HIV prevalence in the world, with an estimated 23.6 per cent of adults aged 15-49 affected.

The village of Van Rooi, where Ms. Tsiu’s family lives, is a desperate one. It’s about an hour’s drive from the capital, Maseru. Along the route, soil erosion bears evidence to years of erratic weather conditions and poor farming methods. There is hardly any cultivated land to be seen. There are no trees.

Ms. Tsiu is resourceful, using what she has to care for her grandchildren and herself. Every now and then, she can invest 100 maloti (about US$12) to purchase a piglet. Once it’s grown fully inside its makeshift pen, a broken-down white Mazda, the windows covered with chicken wire, she’ll slaughter the animal and sell its meat.

But in times like these, it is simply too hard to stretch what little they have.

Supporting the most vulnerable households, and the most vulnerable children

Ms. Tsiu is a beneficiary of a child grants programme that UNICEF and the Ministry of Social Development have been operating since 2007 to help the most vulnerable households afford basic necessities. Each quarter, she receives 360 maloti (US$40).

Because of the crisis, the programme, which already supports over 10,000 households, has been expanded to disburse an extra 800 maloti (US$94) between September and December to more than 15,000 households. Ms. Tsiu says that the extra money she receives as part of the emergency response has allowed her to buy papa (maize meal) – the price of which, she says, has spiked to “about 50 maloti [US$6] for a 12.5 kg bag”, oil and sugar. She has also been able to purchase school shoes for the two younger children.

Another way support reaches children is through a school feeding programme. In a mountain village school 180 km from Maseru, teacher Khali Khali explains how HIV has hit the community: Around half of the 243 schoolchildren are orphans.

For most of these children, the only meals they eat in a day are the two meals they receive in school as part of a World Food Programme-sponsored feeding programme. These meals are a big motivation for the children to attend school, especially during the crisis.

The programme is also a way to mitigate high rates of malnutrition in Lesotho. A 2009 report showed that about 39 per cent of ethnic Basotho children under 5 were stunted. And during the crisis, the United Nations estimates that 8,640 children are acutely or severely malnourished and require therapeutic nutrition through inpatient care.

Creating resiliency

The Government of Lesotho, UNICEF and partners are responding to the crisis with relief assistance that includes agriculture and food security, nutrition, social protection and school feeding. But they are also focusing on long-term strategies that will ultimately help the population to be more resilient during times of erratic weather.

One method is conservation agriculture. Farmer Makana Makana is passionate about this method. He proudly shows off the maize field he farms with three other families. It is the planting season, and he has received seed and fertilizer from a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations seed depot.

Mr. Makana explains conservation agriculture: “I dig a small hole. Then I use this 75 cm metal rod as the distance between this hole and the next one.” He then adds fertilizer and organic manure. Once it rains, he plants the seeds and waits for the crop to grow. “No animals are allowed to graze here because it creates soil erosion,” he says.

Lesotho is fighting to keep its people from losing their livelihoods. As the crisis worsens, more needs to be done to ensure both that the people of Lesotho receive life-saving assistance during this critical time and that sustainable strategies are put in place to make sure that the most vulnerable families are more resilient, in the long term.