Business Day, 03 December 2002, Death and acute food shortages haunt Lesotho

With famine lurking after dry spell and frost, HIV/AIDS worsens crisis for the mountain kingdom

LESOTHO, one of six countries in southern Africa threatened by famine, will need food aid until 2004 after a dry spell in October and severe frost last month blighted next year's maize crop, the Lesotho director of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP), Techeste Zergarber, said yesterday.

"Our regional contingency plan (of extending the emergency operation from July 2003 until 2004) is now a reality for Lesotho," he said. "Here, in the highlands the crops are finished, and even if it rains replanting will not help much. The maize will be caught by winter before it has time to mature."

Withered maize stalks in the mountain maize fields of ThaboTseka were visible from the air during a trip there on Sunday, as well as by road in the low-lying areas of Mafeteng, 90km south of Maseru.

Agricultural extension officer, Mohale Moshoeshoe, confirmed the frost-damaged maize stood no chance of recovering. Replanting was possible, he said, but frozen ground and lack of seed made that task difficult.

The devastation of the fastgrowing, hardy seed variety, which was adapted to the highlands, would be a problem for future harvests, said sociologist David Hall of Sechaba Consultants. The highlands, which were worst hit by the cold, make up three-quarters of the kingdom, where less than 10% of arable land is under cultivation.

Last month in Lesotho, the WFP was targeting 380000 beneficiaries and reaching about 70% of them while feeding about 150000 schoolchildren.

Kimberly Gamble-Payne, director of UN children's agency Unicef in Lesotho, said the food crisis, combined with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, had worsened the dropout rate in schools.

The school feeding programme intends to feed 500000 children by 2007, with the number of WFP beneficiaries this month rising to 550000 of Lesotho's 2,1-million people.

The expanded target group will include those living with HIV/AIDS and those who are 55 and older.

Basotho mineworkers, who have returned home after being retrenched from their jobs in SA for having HIV/AIDS, are among the most vulnerable beneficiaries of the WFP programme.

At least two child-headed households in Thabo-Tseka had lost fathers to AIDS following their return from the mines.

These families now depend on severance packages for survival. The sharp drop in mining jobs has also reduced access to food and household security in rural areas as many families are dependent on the remittances from the mines.

The number of Basotho miners in SA has fallen from 122000 to 59000 in the decade ending 2001, according to the International Monetary Fund. Nor does the creation of about 36000 jobs in textile factories, mostly owned by Asians, provide much relief since the jobs go to those living in urban and not rural areas.

Anecdotal accounts from about a dozen prostitutes, lingering on street corners in the capital on Sunday night, appeared to support this. Hunger had driven them to the towns to find work in the factories, they all said, but they had not been able find jobs.

They estimated their earnings to be about R1000 a month, above the factory wages of about R600 a month.

"In a week I can get up to R300," said Lerato, claiming to be 17 but looking much younger.

She charges about R30 a customer, unless he is white when her rates go up to R50.

For men refusing to wear condoms, she charges R150. But some prostitutes swore they would not have sex without condoms in a country with an adult prevalence rate of 31%.

THE UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS, Stephen Lewis, in Lesotho for three days as part of a three-week trip around southern Africa, said: "The worst is yet to come. Communities are facing drought and death in equal measures and this is tearing the heart out of country after country."