SWAZILAND: The future looks better but the need is now
Counting the days until harvest
mbabane, 2 February 2009 (IRIN) - Goods rain, after years of drought, promises a better harvest for Swaziland in the next few months, but right now urban Swazis are struggling with soaring food prices in the shops.
"It's one step forward, but one step backward," said Amy Dlamini, a food aid worker at a briefing of humanitarian officials last week by the Swaziland Vulnerability Assessment Committee.
The committee's preliminary results suggest better crop yields will strike tens of thousands off the food aid register, but this will be counterbalanced by the worsening nutritional security of the urban poor due to higher food prices.
"When the worst of the drought was killing off crops two years ago, the people who purchased their staple food at the shops were not immediately affected, unlike the rural residents. But last year food prices shot up, in some cases doubling, and now those people who are poor or just scraping by are in jeopardy," said Dlamini, who assists World Vision with food distribution in the central Manzini Region.
The price of the staple starch, maize-meal, rose 25 percent from the end of 2007 to the end of 2008, enough to push the borderline vulnerable into making hard choices.
"They usually opt to do without a meal," said Abdoulaye Balde, country representative for the World Food Programme (WFP). "Families that used to have two meals a day are having one."
WFP and the UN Children's Agency, UNICEF, have announced shifts in aid distribution to target not just vulnerable children, who for several years have been fed at schools and neighbourhood care points, but also their families: in the past they had not always qualified for food relief.
According to the vulnerability survey, the number of people whose food consumption was characterised as "poor" dropped from 5 percent in 2007 to 3 percent in 2008 in the Hhohho Region, where the capital, Mbabane, is located. These were mainly rural subsistence farming households, able to take advantage of a better agricultural season in 2008.
By contrast, the number of those at risk in Hhohho, whose food consumption was catalogued as "borderline", doubled from 13 percent to 26 percent; typically these were urban or peri-urban households, who bought rather than grew their food.
The same split was discernable in the central Manzini Region, where the number of people affected by food shortages remained stable at 5 percent in 2007 and 2008, but those assessed as "borderline" rose from 11 percent to 15 percent.
Worst hit were residents of the perennially dry southern Shiselweni Region, where poor food consumption jumped from 6 percent to 18 percent, while borderline cases rose from 19 percent to 36 percent.
Those most threatened by rising food prices are people living with HIV and AIDS, which affects about 26 percent of Swazi adults aged 15 to 49.
One bright spot in the vulnerability data is evidence that the tradition of families helping relatives in need continues. All four of the country's regions registered an increase in the amount of food consumed by households that was not home-grown or purchased, but provided by relatives.
In the drought-prone Lubombo Region, food "transfers" increased to 26 percent of households' food consumption in 2008, compared to 21 percent the year before. In the southern Shiselweni Region, food transfers more than doubled, from 11 percent to 25 percent.
Dependence on food transfers has grown more acute in urban areas: in Manzini, food transfers tripled from 8 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2008, and increased fivefold in the Hhohho Region, from 5 percent to 26 percent of food consumed by households.
"But there is a limit to what relatives can do for one another as food prices get higher and supplies get scarcer," said food aid worker Dlamini. Currently, 238,625 Swazis - one quarter of the population - require food aid.