Weather extremes threaten food security

Lesotho is facing a food security crisis as changing weather patterns and poverty leave some smallholder...

Vegetables sold in supermarkets. Picture: Eyewitness News

Lesotho is facing a food security crisis as changing weather patterns and poverty leave some smallholder farmers with no option but to abandon farming and sell their land.

Many subsistence farmers in Lesotho are still struggling to recover from heavy rains over much of the country in December 2010 and January 2011 that devastated crops and livestock.

Damage caused by the flooding reduced yields of maize, the staple food, by an average of 62 percent compared to the previous year, according to the 2011 Lesotho Food Security and Vulnerability Monitoring (LVAC) Report, by the country's Disaster Management Authority.

Out of a population of just over two million, the LVAC report estimated that 514,000 needed humanitarian assistance in 2011, twice the number that needed assistance in 2010.

The flooding at the beginning of 2011 was followed by below-normal rains towards the end of the year during the crucial planting season, while in January 2012, the Disaster Management Authority warned farming communities to be prepared for above-normal rainfall during the first three months of the year.

In a country where nearly 60 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and some 40 percent live in extreme poverty, such weather extremes are pushing the coping mechanisms of families already devastated by the effects of HIV and AIDS to breaking point. Lesotho has one of the highest prevalences of HIV in the world.

The epidemic has created a shortage of farm labour and left 130,000 children orphaned, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Malebohang Makhoathi, a 68-year-old widow, has over four hectares of land in Ha Makhoathi, just outside the capital, Maseru - more than enough for her to grow all the food she needs to feed the four grandchildren in her care, but she has not ploughed the fields for the last six years since her son, the family's main breadwinner, passed away.

She has neither the money nor the manpower to cultivate the land and is contemplating selling it for short-term relief.

"The money will make some difference in my family, even if it's for a short period of time," said Makhoathi, who will have to wait another two years before she qualifies for a government pension.

Lejoetso Thekiso, 50, who lives in Ha Mosalla, 15km from Maseru, is among the lucky few subsistence farmers whose children are employed. "Had it not been for my son's financial support, I wouldn't be hoeing here," he told IRIN, as he worked a field rented from a neighbour who could not afford the necessary inputs to cultivate his land.

Although the late rains prevented Thekiso from planting until late December 2011, he is hopeful that his crops will survive.