High, dry and hungry

Mantseuoa Rantho has been feeding her family on credit. "We call it living on skoloto [credit] in Sesotho," she says. She now owes her neighbours in Ha Tsiu, a village tucked away in Lesotho's Thaba Putsoa Mountains, 100km east of the capital, Maseru, three bowls of maize-meal.

Rantho keeps a mental note of her creditors; when she does manage to find the money to buy a sack of maize-meal, she laughs, "You should see how quickly it all disappears."

She depends on casual work on neighbouring farms to feed five children – four of her own and an orphaned niece. Lately there has been no work because the farmers are still recovering from the drought in 2007, one of the worst in 30 years.

Inputs were delayed in the 2007/08 season, so the farmers planted less, which meant there were fewer labour opportunities. Planting for the 2008/09 season, which usually begins in September, has been delayed. There is no sign of rain.

She also tries to find work in neighbouring villages, and in the past few weeks two of her teenage daughters have had to leave home to find work to support the family.

Lesotho imports 70 percent of its food requirements and has been hit hard by soaring global food and fuel prices. "I can't even remember the last time I bought [cooking] oil!" laughs Rantho. Prices are higher in rural areas, which are poorly served by public transportation. A 750ml bottle of cooking oil can cost her as much as $2 - more than double the price in neighbouring South Africa, from where it is imported.

During school terms the younger children receive morning porridge and lunch from the World Food Programme (WFP), which supports the Lesotho government in providing two free meals a day to 80,483 pupils in 478 primary schools located in the remote and economically disadvantaged highland and mountainous regions of the country.

''I can't even remember the last time I bought [cooking] oil!''

"When there is no school, it is back to skoloto," she grins. Her ability to laugh keeps her upbeat, and credit is her coping mechanism. But she is an exception; few rural dwellers feel optimistic, although most also have to get by on skoloto. Retselisitsoe Rasetona, in the neighbouring village of Ha Koporale, quips, "We have no food, so we have to borrow; that is how we survive."

The situation in the rural remote areas, where almost 90 percent of the population lives, is particularly dire. In June 2008 a survey in Bobete village, in the mountainous Thaba-tseka district in eastern Lesotho, by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Catholic Relief Services, found almost 61 percent of the respondents had borrowed food, or money to buy food; half said they ate smaller meals to ensure there was food for children.

More than half the children in Thaba-Tseka district were found to be chronically malnourished, according to a survey in December 2007 by the Lesotho government, the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, Action Against Hunger and WFP.

UNICEF helped the government conduct the nutrition survey, as well as revitalise its National Nutrition Surveillance system after the government declared a state of emergency in 2007, when the drought left 30 percent of the population in need.

The results of the survey showed that 42 percent of children below the age of five were stunted or suffering chronic malnutrition, indicating a lack of nutritious food for a long period of time among other factors.
Most Basotho rely on remittances from family members working in towns or government labour programmes, or in neighbouring South Africa.

More in need

The rainfall forecast for the 2008/09 season is not good, according to Peter Muhangi, a UNICEF project officer supporting the Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC), which has identified 353,000 people - about 20 percent of the 1.8 million population - who will be in need of food assistance in 2008/09.

These figures have not taken into account the poor rain forecast for the coming season. "The numbers in need could increase," said Esther Kabaire, of the Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping (VAM) branch of WFP.

"In a situation where about one in two children are currently chronically malnourished, any trigger, such as poor rainfall, could push the country into a crisis," said Wisam Al-Timimi, UNICEF's Child Survival specialist in Lesotho. "One has to take into account that several months have elapsed since the survey, and prices have continued to rise in Lesotho."

The country produces about 30 percent of its 344,000 metric tonne national cereal requirement and imports the remaining 70 percent. The price of national staple, maize-meal, shot up by 59 percent between July 2008 and March 2007, a WFP survey noted, while cooking oil has risen by 100 percent over the same period.

Declining food production

The average farmer in Lesotho grows around 30 percent of his household's food requirements and buys the rest. Agriculture is the mainstay of rural communities and provides livelihood support to over 70 percent of the population, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and WFP.

Crop production, accounting for 70 percent of agricultural gross domestic product (GDP), is virtually all rain-fed; livestock production represents 30 percent of agricultural GDP.

Besides the drought in 2007, over the years increasing amounts of arable land have been left uncultivated because of unpredictable weather, a lack of cash for inputs, severe soil erosion, lack of sustainable land management practices and a shortage of farm labour as a result of HIV and AIDS, the FAO has said.

Lesotho's HIV prevalence rate of 23.2 percent is one of the world's highest, and the country has more than 100,000 children orphaned by AIDS. The World Bank estimates that by 2015 Lesotho's GDP will be reduced by almost one-third as a result of HIV and AIDS.

This situation is set to worsen, as climate-change scenarios indicate that the country is set to suffer severe water stress in the next few decades.

Dependency on a single crop - mono-cropping of maize - makes farmers, especially those living in marginal and drought-prone areas, very vulnerable.

Help on the way?

The government is considering food/voucher assistance and programmes to distribute inputs; the VAC has recommended cash transfer interventions; UNICEF is helping the government set up sentinel sites to monitor nutrition levels across the country. "This will help to provide us with trends and help us prepare for any response should the need arise," said Al-Timimi.

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Mantseuoa Rantho with her niece trying to hide her smile.

WFP is providing food assistance to 155,000 vulnerable people in a programme targeting chronically poor and food-insecure beneficiaries of prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT), antiretroviral therapy (ART) and tuberculosis (TB) treatment in remote, mountainous and virtually inaccessible areas.

"But to qualify for this programme you need to have a certain CD4 count [which indicates the strength of the immune system] to be on ART," said a nurse in a mountain village clinic. "But I get so many HIV-positive people, who are not on ART, crying for food. Many are starving; the government must help."

Thirty years ago Lesotho was exporting cereals and vegetables, but with investment in agriculture, irrigation, and training in farming techniques, such as conservation agriculture, which requires minimal water, the situation can be turned around, said FAO country representative Memed Gunawan.