Welcome rain falls, but not enough to break the four-year drought

Rain fall across the country from Friday through Monday, the first widespread soaking Swaziland has seen in months, has given farmers hope that the planting season can be salvaged.

"October has ended and farmers are still waiting for dependable rains, but the first rains have made us optimistic," said principal secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture, Noah Nkambule.

However, the punishing drought in most parts of the country has not been broken - most dams have fallen to levels so low that irrigation projects are on hold and urban centres are preparing for water rationing.

Addressing farmers in the Malkerns Valley, centre of the pineapple growing and canning industry, Nkambule blamed climate change for droughts that have persisted in some areas since the late 1990s.

"The climatic changes we are witnessing are posing a major threat to agricultural productivity and, in general, to the welfare of the Swazi nation. We are seeing the fast disappearance of water in our national dams, which are now reaching record low levels, with serious consequences for irrigated agriculture," he said.

What was to have been the country's largest water reservoir, the Maguga Dam spanning the Komati River near the northern border with South Africa, has never reached more than half its capacity in the three years since its completion.

A hydroelectric power station under construction at the dam to ease Swaziland's energy shortage will further cut into available water. Some downstream irrigation projects involving farmers' cooperatives and poverty alleviation were awaiting Maguga water but have been put on hold.

With nearly a third of Swazis currently dependent on food donations from international relief organisations, the government's prime concern remains food security.

A parliamentary report on the food shortage, tabled by Deputy Prime Minister Albert Shabangu this week, noted that 27,000 mt of food aid was needed to help feed 265,000 vulnerable people between now and April next year.

In addition to drought victims, tens of thousands of indigent school children, people living with HIV and AIDS, and the elderly receive food assistance.

The planting season traditionally begins during September or early October; this week's rains have prompted farmers to begin.