Swaziland: The crescent of drought

MBABANE, 20 November 2008 (IRIN)

  • November, often the rainiest month of the year in Swaziland, has left most of the country awash with flash floods; but in the eastern Lowveld, no rain has fallen, and the fear is of yet another drought year in which food aid will be needed.

"Are we cursed, the people living here? Not a drop has fallen, not one drop," said Amos Zwane, a smallholder farmer near Lavumisa in the Shiselweni region in the south. The area is nearing its second decade of poor rainfall.

But the government insists it can provide for its people. "We are able to bring water anywhere in Swaziland by using irrigation," said Janice Motsa, a consultant with the Swaziland Water Services Corporation.

She notes an initiative to dam the Usuthu River to provide irrigation water to areas like Lavumisa, mainly populated by subsistence farmers making an impoverished existence from a hectare of maize and a few cattle.

But such schemes, even if financing can be found in these times of shrinking credit and hesitant donors, are years from completion, and will not help those who will gather a much smaller harvest in March 2009.

"November is a time of great want", when the previous year's harvests have been depleted and the first fruits of spring are weeks away, wrote anthropologist Hilda Kuper in her first documentation of Swazi life in the 1930s.

This is most true in the crescent of drought that stretches from the Lomahasha border post with Mozambique in the north, through the Lubombo region along the eastern boundary of the country to the Lavumisa border post with South Africa in the south.

Emaciated cattle tread dusty trails, while the corpses of those who did not survive lie in the sun, representing huge losses to the owners, whose only real assets are often their livestock. As dams dry up in the early summer heat, cattle venture into the muddy remnants of reservoirs that for decades had always had water all year round, and get stuck in the deadly bog.

"This is like animal cruelty. If the farmers can't feed and water their cattle they should put them out of their misery," said Mary, a visitor from town.

"Do you know it has been over a year since we have had rains that have truly soaked the soil, so things other than weeds can grow?" said Teetee Tsabedze, who looks after her two grandchildren in her compound of twin mud-and-stick huts.

Tsabedze's sons ploughed her field in October 2007, hoping that the spring rains would be the start of the season, but no more fell and her maize plants became withered sprouts in the parched cracked ground.

Better rainfall in other parts of the country reduced the record number of Swazis dependant on some form of food assistance; a year ago nearly a half million were in need.

Children from poor rural homesteads often have their only meal of the day from school feeding schemes run by the World Food Programme (WFP), which is assisting 177 of Swaziland's 524 public primary schools, and expects to reach about 200 in the near future. WFP officials point to higher test scores from the better-nourished students.

A network of earthen dams built by government in recent years was once seen as the inexpensive solution to the area's water crisis, but a lack of maintenance has ruined many of them, and cattle wander further afield in search of water. Cattle rustling has become so widespread that the newly reappointed Prime Minister, Sibusiso Dlamini, has called for harsher penalties for cattle thieves.

Moving out

"Some residents of the crescent of drought have decided for themselves that the area cannot sustain human occupation without government investment in irrigation to revive cultivation, and boreholes to provide household drinking water," Dlamini said.

The local press has reported a growing number of abandoned homesteads, whose occupants have fled across the border to South Africa, which is only a few kilometres away and guarded only by a barbed-wire fence.

What remains are roofless mud huts, the blackened grass that once roofed them scattered across parched fields that would require "a solid week of intense rainfall to yield any life", according to water consultant Motsa.

International humanitarian relief organisations like World Vision, which for many years has distributed food contributions brought by the WFP from the US and other donor nations, has reported that the days of tying the food requirements of the people to the probability of rainfall have passed and might never return, as climate change has fundamentally altered rainfall patterns in the area.

World Vision has urged the government to invest more in water delivery infrastructure, so that failed crop plantings when there is too little spring rain do not become a permanent food shortage, exhausting the patience of already strained donor groups, and prompting more people to leave the area. Otherwise, Lavumisa will see more ghost homesteads in future.