Lesotho + 3 more

Lesotho faces spectre of more human suffering, warn UN Special Envoys

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MASERU - The deathly combination of widespread food shortages and the fourth highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world spell untold suffering for hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in Lesotho for the foreseeable future, said two United Nations Special Envoys on a humanitarian mission to the country.
James T. Morris, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, today warned that while international aid has helped to prevent a humanitarian tragedy in Lesotho over the past six months, food shortages continue to haunt a population already weakened by HIV/AIDS.

The gravity of two monumental crises converging across southern Africa has prompted the addition of Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, on Morris' second mission to southern Africa. Attention at the highest level of the UN to tackle this dual calamity reflects the urgent priority attached to the current crisis.

"I have been moved by the struggle that the people of this country, especially women, face every day to survive and support their families," said Morris after meeting some of the hardest-hit families in the highland villages of Lesotho's Mokhotlong District earlier today. "It is clear, especially with the likelihood of another poor harvest and the astronomical HIV/AIDS level, that we have an enormous battle ahead of us in the fight against growing food insecurity and vulnerability in Lesotho."

HIV/AIDS is tearing apart the very social fabric of the country. Adult prevalence rates have skyrocketed in the last few years, up from 23.5 percent of the population aged 15-49 in 1999, to at least 31 percent using the last official statistics. Today's HIV/AIDS rates could be even higher.

"HIV/AIDS is destroying the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people across Lesotho and is threatening society as a whole," said Special HIV/AIDS Envoy Stephen Lewis. "The link between the pandemic and food insecurity has become shockingly stark -- more and more families are too weak to grow enough food, while countless children orphaned by AIDS are being left to fend for themselves."

Morris is accompanied by a team of senior UN officials from the key agencies concerned in responding to the current crisis. The team met with His Majesty King Letsie III, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, Foreign Minister Kenneth Tsekoa and members of the Food Security Cabinet Committee.

Monumental challenges lie ahead in the months to come, especially in addressing the needs of women, who bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, extreme poverty and hunger.

Some 330,000 people have benefited from food aid supplied by the World Food Programme, which has received just over half of the relief food requirements against a joint UN appeal launched last year. Moreover less than 10 percent of needed funds have has been made available for essential non-food items, including life-saving medicines, seeds and water supplies.

According to preliminary figures from November inter-agency vulnerability assessments, approximately 650,000 people are extremely vulnerable in Lesotho and are in need of food aid and other assistance until at least the end of March, when this year's harvest is due to start.

It seems increasingly likely that large numbers of people in Lesotho will continue to depend on international relief for many months after the harvest. The forecast is bleak, with many farmers warning of yet another year of severely reduced crop production - or in some cases no crop whatsoever.

The country has also suffered from yet more erratic weather. A dry spell in October, coupled with frost in November and hailstorms in December, have already destroyed large areas of maize in Lesotho's highland areas.

Lesotho is the first leg of a week-long regional tour, which includes Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. Morris' team will review current responses to the humanitarian crisis and follow up on the findings of the first mission in September, which highlighted the role that HIV/AIDS has played in exacerbating the current disaster. This latest mission makes a crucial linkage to Lewis' December trip to southern Africa - his second - in order to sharply raise awareness of the vicious circle of HIV/AIDS and nutrition, and in particular, how the UN system and the international community can more effectively assist women, whose lives are most at risk from the disease.

Julia Taft, Assistant Administrator for UNDP and Director of the Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, is among the mission members, which also include representatives from SADC, UNICEF, WFP, UNAIDS, OCHA, WHO, and FAO

Special Envoy Mission Itinerary

Lesotho: January 22-23
Zimbabwe: January 23-25
Malawi: January 25-26
Zambia: January 26-28
Johannesburg: January 28-29

For more information contact:

Office of the UNDP/World Food Programme

Richard Lee
Tel: + 266 22 323 989 (office);
+ 27 83 460 1787 (cell)

Sebastian Levine
Tel: + 266 22 313 790 (office)

Brenda Barton
(traveling with the S.Envoy)
Tel: + 27 83 460 1775

For a virtual tour of the Special Envoy's trip, visit www.wfp.org

Note: The Special Envoy is holding a closing press conference in Johannesburg at 10:30am on 29 January at the Rosebank Hyatt