Swaziland: Failure of agriculture leads to rise in aid dependency

LAVUMISA, 17 January (IRIN) - Virva Hautala and Sanna Simonen lend a hand at a pump, manually extracting life-preserving water from a borehole beneath the parched earth. The Finnish aid volunteers urge the children queued with plastic containers not to waste the precious fluid as they pump or carry their water rations on their heads back to homesteads up to 10 km away.
"The water will be used for drinking and cooking. Washing bodies and clothes must wait for the rains, whenever they choose to come," said Sabelo Mngometulu, headmaster of the primary school where the pump is located.

Hautala indicated a fenced off portion of earth, where stunted maize stalks wither beneath a blazing mid-summer sun. "The food shortage will continue until either rains or irrigation come to this area."

Hautala and her partner Simonen have been brought by the Lutheran Church to Swaziland to assist with food distribution. At Lavumisa, located in the eastern lowveld at the border of South Africa, drought has hit hard. Virtually no one has any food, and survival depends on regular distribution of rations through the World Food Programme (WFP).

Donkeys feeding off sparse stalks of grass carry 50-kg bags of maize meal bearing the inscription "From the People of the United States".

This week, Ben Nsibandze, director of the National Disaster Task Relief Force, announced nearly a 10 percent increase in the number of Swazis requiring food assistance, to 287,000, up from 265,000 in November. This year's crops will not be harvested until April at the earliest, assuming rains do not fail like last year.

"The number of people needing assistance will rise," Nsibandze told IRIN. With a population of 970,000, Swaziland may see a third of its people without food by the end of summer.

The problem is largely due to the dependency by peasant farmers, who comprise 80 percent of the population, on erratic rainfall. The government's irrigation initiatives, such as the new Lower Usuthu Basin Irrigation Scheme, are aimed at sugar cane cultivation and other cash crops for export to raise foreign currency.

"We have to address the issue of food security," an agriculture ministry field officer told IRIN. "The small farmers have got to form cooperatives, pool their resources, and buy irrigation equipment to sustain their crops."

Banks will not lend to peasant farmers, who have no collateral because they do not own title deeds to their fields, and can be evicted if they run afoul of their local chiefs. Prince Maguga Dlamini last year evicted 200 people whom he considered disloyal from their farms.

Land reform is required, but is not a priority at the ministries of natural resources and agriculture. The ministers are palace appointees, and political observers say the royal family wants to ensure the loyalty of the population by giving chiefs control over the land.

"When the farmers own their fields, they can be independent. They can join political parties and protest government actions, and not be afraid that chiefs will throw them off their ancestral lands," Joshua Mzizi, president of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland, explained.

Back at Lavumisa, the pump energetically worked by small children responsible for fetching their families' daily water ration was intended to service the primary school only. As part of a student feeding scheme initiated by the UN Children's Fund, the borehole would have irrigated a large field to feed the school children.

But because of the current emergency it has been pressed into service to provide water for the surrounding community, and the plan to cultivate nourishing vegetables for the children has been suspended.

"The only food these children receive daily is at school. We serve them a lunch of hard porridge and vegetable, but it wasn't enough. Now children arrive at six in the morning to help prepare breakfast of tea, soft porridge and sugar," teacher Sizwe Shabangu said.

The school is the community distribution point for WFP food. Families were surveyed for their needs, and each is given an allotment of maize meal and cabbages. "There is no cooking oil, which is unfortunate, and the people must find ways to supplement their diets with other foods," said Simonen.

However, a festive mood prevails on food distribution day, which is every other Thursday. Entrepreneurs have found a way to earn some cash by transporting the large bags of maize to neighbours' homesteads for R10 (US $1) per bag. They use the remnants of junked small trucks which are cut in half, with the driver's seats and engine compartments replaced by teams of donkeys.

While the local press has published photos of desperate-looking individuals complaining they have no food, no deaths from starvation have been reported. Aid workers say the emergency is under control so-far, thanks to good information gathering. However, the needs are growing as Swaziland struggles to come to grips with the inefficiency of its agricultural system.


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