- Usually regarded as the maize-basket of Lesotho, the southern district of Mafeteng has been hit particularly hard by both the drought and severe soil erosion. This has left thousands of previously fertile fields empty and abandoned and tens of thousands of previously self-sufficient farmers dependent on international food aid.
The World Food Programme (WFP) reports of a total crop failure in Lesotho's Mafeteng district, usually the small mountain kingdom's most fertile area. The regional drought, which has hit Lesotho extra hard, is also causing despair in the country's maize-basket, severely affecting Lesotho's food security, WFP says.
WFP has been providing aid to people in Mafeteng through its partner, the Salvation Army, since 2002. And now it looks as if operations will have to continue long after the end of the current emergency operation in June 2004, the UN agency reports from Mafeteng.
- This area has never faced such a crisis since I was born back in 1928, local farmer Mahlomola Monaheng told WFP, while watching a handful of dry soil drain through his fingers. "Our only hope is that WFP continues to give us food because we have no way of getting any other food until next year's harvest."
The UN food emergency agency promises not to let the Basotho down through this crisis. "Over the past two years, WFP and its donors and partners have managed to prevent a crisis in Lesotho from turning into a catastrophe," says Techeste Zergaber, WFP Country Director in Lesotho.
- WFP has successfully provided food aid to over one third of the entire population of Lesotho," adds Mr Zergarber. "We achieved this despite a host of serious logistical problems, especially high up in the more remote mountain areas. We even used donkeys in some cases to ensure that the food got to those in need."
However, the crisis is far from over, WFP warns. Indeed, the UN agency holds that it is likely to become even more acute. "The situation is worse than in 2002. Back then WFP was covering eight districts out of 10 but this year the whole country is affected," Mr Zergaber says.
In February, the Maseru government declared a state of emergency. After the almost complete failure of the winter crop, it now seems likely that the main maize harvest in April/May will be far below normal due to the ongoing drought.
Latest estimates indicate that at least 600,000 - and possibly as many as 700,000 - people will need food assistance up until the next maize harvest in 2005. The Basotho government has appealed for increased international assistance. "WFP is considering scaling up its operations to help meet the rising needs," the agency says.
Back in Mafeteng, 76-year-old Mr Monaheng gazes out in silence over his dry and dusty fields. In good years, his maize would now be shoulder high. Even in bad years, it would be rustling around his waist. But this year, only a few plants have survived - and they are just knee-high and withering in the heat. "This is the worst drought I can remember," he tells WFP Lesotho.
Fortunate enough to own four fields, Mr Monaheng used to harvest enough maize to feed his family throughout the year. Occasionally, there would even be a small surplus to sell. But not now. "In 2003, my maize crop was very poor but at least we harvested something," he added. "This year, we will get nothing at all."
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