Floods take heavy toll

From a distance, the fields of maize that cover almost every hillside in Lesotho’s Thaba-Tseka District look green and lush. On closer inspection, the plants have a sickly yellowish hue and the heads of corn that should be ripening in time for the April harvest are nowhere to be seen.

For most of the farmers in this remote, mountainous district, and in many other parts of Lesotho, there will be no harvest this season. Heavy rains which started in December and are expected to continue through much of February have washed away top soil and nutrients and left fields waterlogged and weed infested.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that in some of the worst hit districts up to 60 percent of crops have been destroyed while nationally at least 4,700 livestock, mainly sheep and goats, have died.

Lesotho’s mountainous topography and erratic weather mean it already produces only enough grain to meet about 30 percent of its needs. The country had increased its production of maize - the main cereal crop - and sorghum during 2010, but the heavy rains are likely to reverse those gains.

“It’s going to affect food security in the worst way because Lesotho doesn’t produce enough food as it is,” Matsiliso Mmojaki, head of the national Disaster Management Authority (DMA), told IRIN.

Out of a population of just over two million, Mmojaki estimated 250,000 will need food assistance in the coming months.

Not a disaster?

In the village of Phaila, in Thaba-Tseka District, Tsepo Phaila, 31, watched one afternoon in early January as a river of water swept down a hillside, tearing up the trees he and his family had planted for firewood, and flooding their maize field. By the time the water receded, only a few broken stalks poked up from the mud.

''It's going to affect food security in the worst way because Lesotho doesn't produce enough food as it is''

"We can't plant there any more because the topsoil has washed away," Phaila said.

The family has one other smaller field where maize plants are still standing but are too rain-damaged to produce a harvest. "There's nothing we can do right now," said Phaila, explaining that the maize and the firewood provided the only source of income to support himself and nine other family members.

Many other households in the village and across northern Lesotho are facing a similar predicament, but the government has yet to declare the situation a disaster.

"Should we say because the government hasn't declared it a disaster, it's not a disaster?" asked Teboho Chalane, the Ministry of Agriculture's extension officer for Thaba-Tseka District. "A lot of people have been affected; there will be no maize for them, so we need to do something to make sure they get something to eat."

He added that if seeds could be distributed quickly, there was still time for affected households to grow vegetables before the start of winter. In the longer term, said Chalane, communities needed to become less reliant on maize and start keeping livestock such as poultry and pigs that could be bred and sold.

As for the fields of stunted maize plants, his advice to farmers was: "Take a scythe and cut them all down."

Photo: Mujahid Safodien/IRIN
Tsepo Phaila is one of many subsistence farmers whose maize crop has been destroyed

Costly response

Like many parts of Southern Africa, Lesotho had been warned to expect a heavier than usual rainy season due to the La Niña phenomenon, but Mmojaki of the DMA said "the intensity [of the rains] was just beyond our imagination; it has never really happened here."

A rapid assessment of the damage conducted in January found that in addition to the extensive crop losses, a number of roads had been washed away making some health facilities unreachable. Stocks of essential medicines, including antiretrovirals (ARVs) and drugs to treat diarrhoea, an outbreak of which had spread across the country, were running low.

The DMA has developed a contingency plan and submitted it to the government for approval. It includes urgent repairs to roads, bridges and water supply systems as well as assistance to farmers in the form of subsidies, seeds and fertilizers.

The plan comes with a price tag of US$68.5 million, an amount that economic policy head in the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning Motena Ts'olo said the government would struggle to raise at a time when the global economic slowdown and reduced revenues from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) were already straining the national budget.

"The rain has created even more pressure and I don't know how we'll manage, but somehow we'll have to," she told IRIN.