With about 40 percent of Swaziland's one million people facing acute food and water shortages, UN agencies have appealed to the international donor community for a timely response to avert a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the drought-struck kingdom.
Preliminary findings of the first Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) for Swaziland by the UN's Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the 2007 Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC), consisting of government representatives, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations, point to "a high rate of chronic malnutrition across regions (24 to 39 percent)".
According to UNICEF, "these new data emphasise the high background vulnerability of children in Swaziland, which will only be exacerbated by the current drought emergency".
"There are great worries of severe malnutrition if we don't act now," John Holmes, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, said on Tuesday at the launch of a US$15.6 million appeal for emergency assistance.
|Families have resorted to sharing dwindling water supplies with livestock|
Besides the absence of food, an acute shortage of water is the most visible sign of the current drought. Water sources are drying up fast, with many boreholes now empty. "Families have resorted to drinking water from dams, streams and rivers and even, in some cases, sharing dwindling water supplies with livestock," said a statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"We monitor the drilling, and this year many attempts to drill boreholes failed - the holes were dry," Christopher Fakudze, an economist at the Ministry of Economic Planning, told IRIN.
"We have fallen behind in our efforts to bring essential water to the population - 54 percent of Swazis have access to clean water," he said. This figure is an improvement over the 1990s, when only 33 percent of Swazis had dependable clean water.
At grave risk
"The drought is also likely to have an indirect impact on the already severe HIV/AIDS situation, as patients on antiretroviral drugs are expected to discontinue taking drugs in the absence of food," said the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP): Swaziland Drought Flash Appeal 2007.
At 33.4 percent, according to UN estimates, Swaziland has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world.
"Poor households are reported to have engaged in negative coping strategies, including transactional sex, leading to a higher incidence of sexually transmitted infections and HIV," the appeal warned.
Albertina Nyatsi, of Women Together, a local HIV/AIDS support group, pointed out that "People need clean water as part of a healthy diet; they need clean water to take their medicines."
Faced with the worst harvest in the country's recorded history, the government declared a national emergency in June and pledged $23.6 million in assistance.
"The government of Swaziland is doing all it can, but needs our support," Holmes said in the OCHA statement. "Hundreds of thousands of people face hunger, illness and severe hardship in the coming months, and it is critical that we get life-saving activities up and running as quickly as possible."
He said the situation was exacerbated by high HIV-infection rates and the vulnerability of many young orphans. "I very much hope that donors will respond generously to the flash appeal."