LESOTHO: Food prices aggravate crisis
Children now need more help than ever
Johannesburg, 27 June 2008 (IRIN) - Already heavily dependent on food handouts, Lesotho is buckling under chronic food insecurity, poverty and one of the highest HIV rates in the world. Now, rising food prices are adding to the crisis, and the most vulnerable, often children, are paying the price.
"The increase in food prices and fuel prices, combined with the end of emergency drought-related relief interventions from donors and government, have resulted in a potentially critical situation," said Aberra Bekele, Deputy Representative of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). "Children are already the most vulnerable and at risk in Lesotho."
Bekele told IRIN/PlusNews the situation would hit the most vulnerable the hardest. An HIV prevalence rate of 23 percent had left over 180,000 children orphaned, and "any imbalance and further shock, such as the increase in food prices, could cause an additional blow to children." According to the World Food Programme (WFP), the price of maize-meal, the staple food in Lesotho, had increased by over 55 percent in the past year. Other essentials were also quickly soaring beyond the reach of the poor: vegetable oil had doubled in price; paraffin, used for cooking, had risen by 80 percent.
The poor spent such a high portion of their income on food that even a slight price hike could push thousands over the edge, said Hassan Sheikkh, Programme Officer at WFP Lesotho.
"In a situation such as this, people will be forced to adopt more severe and strange coping strategies - selling already depleted productive assets, skipping meals during the day, [or] migrating [to another area or neighbouring country]," he commented. From bad to worse
Sheikkh said the combination of rocketing food prices and the end of the "relief package from donors and government [in response to severe drought] ... resulted in a potentially critical situation."
|We need to attack chronic problems in what has become a recurrent emergency |
Less than 11 percent of mountainous Lesotho is arable. Besides being one of the poorest countries in Africa, it is still struggling to come to grips with three consecutive years of drought, of which 2007 was the worst in over three decades: with around 400,000 of the roughly 1.9 million population in need of assistance, the government had been forced to declare a state of emergency.
Years of food deficiency have forced many people into a state of chronic vulnerability. According to UNICEF, about 20 percent of children younger than five are underweight and 38 percent of children in the same age group are chronically malnourished.Desperation beyond hunger
With the crisis ongoing, UNICEF was prompted to revitalise its National Nutrition Surveillance System. These reports revealed disturbing figures: in late 2007, at the height of the crisis, assessments indicated that Global Stunting (which measures chronic malnutrition) had reached 41.7 percent countrywide, and up to 55 percent in some areas. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 40 percent or higher is a 'critical situation'.
"We need to attack chronic problems in what has become a recurrent emergency," Bekele said. "Sound nutrition is the foundation for child survival, learning, and wellbeing. Good nutrition, especially in the first three years of a child's life, also offers massive returns in health, education and productivity."
UNICEF's latest Nutrition Surveillance Bulletin revealed a slight decrease in malnutrition trends, "probably as a result of emergency interventions carried out during the drought period."
The most recent vulnerability assessment, conducted by the government's Disaster Management Authority (DMA), indicated that 350,000 people would suffer food deficits over the next six months, making the need for renewed relief interventions imminent. The DMA said another poor harvest and rising food prices were to blame.
The impact on WFP's operations would be two-fold: "a rise in needy beneficiaries, and diminishing purchasing power of WFP," Sheikkh told IRIN."We will surely have to revise the budget for our country programme, with the possibility that donors will not manage to meet this increase in funding needs," he said. "Secondly, our current country programme will be addressing the food needs of 150,000 people for 2008 [but, given the anticipated increase in those in need of assistance] we might have to double our caseload."
WFP Lesotho is already trying to counter rising food prices by purchasing locally to cut down on transport costs.