A prolonged dry spell has left around 400,000 vulnerable people in need of approximately 40,000 metric tonnes (mt) of food assistance until the next harvest in April 2008, according to a report by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), which was based on a joint assessment mission.
WFP has been supporting about a quarter of Swaziland's 1.1 million people with food assistance since 2002, to improve the nutrition of families affected by drought, poverty and HIV/AIDS.
WFP spokesman Richard Lee said the aid agency would only be able to determine the exact number of beneficiaries it would support after discussions with the government. "We did intend to feed 215,000 over the year; that number will probably increase".
Annual maize production in the mountain kingdom has been on a decline for the past 10 years, explained Shukri Ahmed, FAO economist. "Even until last year, the country was averaging 70,000mt to 80,000mt; half of the 137,000mt it was producing in the 1990s".
He said a combination of increasingly erratic rainfall, inappropriate farming strategies and a diminishing agricultural labour pool as a result of the high incidence of AIDS. Swaziland's HIV prevalence is 33.4 percent, according to UNAIDS.
Ahmed said while meteorological reports had indicated that rainfall in the kingdom had become erratic over the past decade particularly at a time critical for the maize crop, it was difficult to link it to climate change. "It [the link] will need more research; the farmers are also not using the right crop mix [ i.e., growing drought-resistant crops like sorghum and millet during the dry spells]".
He said certain parts of the country despite persisting dry spells had insisted on growing maize, a fragile crop that is not indigenous to Africa. "The government needs to accelerate projects involving crop diversification, small-scale irrigation projects and encourage water harvesting".
Maize production in 2006/07 is estimated at about 26,000mt, nearly 60 percent below last year's level. According to the UN agencies, prices of major cereals have increased considerably in response to local shortages and as a result of significant maize price increases in South Africa, the main exporter to Swaziland. Poor rainfall has hit harvests across Southern Africa.
Swaziland's cereal import requirement in the 2007/08 marketing year (April/March) is estimated at 173,800mt, of which an estimated 129,000mt are expected to be imported commercially, according to the UN agencies. An estimated 70 percent of Swazis live on less than US$1 per day.