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320 000 Basotho on the verge of famine

Herbert Moyo  

AT least 229 000 food insecure Basotho are currently experiencing a severe food “crisis” and are in urgent need of aid “to save lives, reduce food gaps, protect and restore livelihoods and prevent acute malnutrition”.

The situation is expected to deteriorate from October 2022 to March 2023, with the number of those experiencing an acute food shortage rising exponentially to 320 000. Barring Leribe and Butha-Buthe, all the other districts will be affected by the food shortages.

This according to the latest report by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). Headquartered at the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) offices in Rome, Italy, IPC is a global multi-partner initiative for improving food security and nutrition analysis and decision-making.

Besides FAO, some of the main partners in the IPC initiative include the World Food Programme (WFP), SADC, UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the Children, Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), Action against Hunger, CARE International and the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission.

All in all, 54 Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and African countries including Lesotho, are members of the IPC. Fellow SADC states like Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are also part of the IPC Initiative.

Yesterday, the Sunday Express obtained a copy of IPC’s latest analysis showing the worrying extent of Lesotho’s food situation.

“According to the latest results of an IPC Acute Food Insecurity analysis, an estimated 229 000 people representing 15 percent of the population in rural areas of Lesotho are classified in IPC Phase 3 (crisis) in the current period from July to September 2022 and will require urgent action to reduce food gaps, protect and restore livelihoods and prevent acute malnutrition.

“Six out of 10 analysed districts of the country have been classified in IPC Phase 2 (Stressed) in the current period while four districts are classified in IPC Phase 3 (Crisis),” the IPC states in its report.

It further states that the situation will deteriorate from October 2022 to March 2023, with the number of people facing a food crisis rising to 320 000.

“During this period (October 2022 to March 2023), about 320 000 people (22 percent of the rural population) are projected to face a crisis (IPC Phase 3) food insecurity situation and may require humanitarian assistance to reduce food gaps, protect and restore livelihoods and prevent acute malnutrition. During this period, the total population that will likely experience high acute food insecurity is expected to be higher in numbers compared to the same time last year, representing an increase of 3 percent.”

The report states that Mohale’s Hoek, Quthing, Thaba Tseka and Qacha’s Nek are currently in the “crisis” phase while the remaining six districts are in the slightly better “stressed” category.

However, all the districts except for Leribe and Butha-Buthe will enter the “crisis” category in October as food stocks deplete in most households, the report warns.

“From October 2022 to March 2023, an estimated 320 000 people representing 22 percent of the population in rural areas of Lesotho are projected to be in IPC Phase 3 (crisis). Eight of the analysed districts are projected to be in IPC Phase 3 (crisis). At a country level and with regards to the weather condition itself, seasonal rainfall came with no delay. However, throughout the rainy season most areas experienced excessive amounts of rain, which destroyed some crops and caused waterlogging in most parts of the country. As a result, Lesotho registered low crop production compared to the previous year (2021) and the most recent five-year average,” the IPC report states.

Waterlogging, high food prices and the general economic decline have been cited as key drivers of the food insecurity in Lesotho.

“Heavy rains from October 2021 to March 2022 resulted in crop damage to some fields and waterlogging at the critical growth stage for some crops. Weeding was negatively affected, resulting in reduced casual labour opportunities for poor households. The excessive rains further resulted in low crop production this year compared to last season.

“It is anticipated that households will rely on markets more than usual to cover their consumption needs. The prices of staples have been largely impacted by the knock on effects of the declining economic situation in the country. Fuel prices have increased as a result of headline inflation of 7, 8 percent compared to 6, 5 percent in the previous fiscal year. This increased the cost of importation of oil and oil products.

“The resultant effect is high prices, especially for staples and cooking oil for the households.  This is going to affect those households that will deplete their stocks early in the consumption year who eventually rely on markets for supplies. Sources of livelihoods (such as casual labour on farms, remittances, crop sales, beer brewing, petty trade, formal salary/wages, livestock or livestock product sales) remained slightly lower than normal, thus implying deterioration in income from other sources,” the report states.

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has also been blamed for fuelling price hikes for food and other items in Lesotho and other countries.

“As of June 2022, the price of one litre of paraffin was M18, 90 compared to M9, 50 in June 2021. The price of 750 ml of cooking oil also increased from M28 to M50 in June 2022. Price increases were evident in the fertiliser trade. Regarding cereal trade, as of June 2022, a tonne of wheat cost M24 000 compared to M9000 in (June) 2021. The Government of Lesotho subsidised fuel prices by 6 percent effective from July to December 2022. Prior to the 6 percent subsidy, the price of petrol 93 was M23, 70 (per litre) compared to the current M22, 20. Petrol 95 was M24, 15 and is now M22, 65. Russia and Ukraine are also the main producers of wheat and currently, the alternative wheat suppliers are strained, causing high demand and negatively impacting on the price of wheat. Lesotho is a net importer of most of its food commodities from South Africa and will also suffer from the increasing prices of wheat. Further price increases are anticipated as the war in Ukraine continues.”

The report recommends the following measures to address the food insecurity:

  • Urgent action is required to save lives, reduce food consumption gaps and protect livelihoods of all vulnerable people in Crisis (IPC Phase 3).
  • Provision of agricultural inputs to farming households that cannot afford access to them.
  • Government to continue with the initiative of purchase of grains and beans from local producers to promote market opportunities for farmers who have surplus from own produce.
  • Reduction of food consumption gaps by improving access to food through appropriate modalities.
  • Protection of livelihood assets and production systems through livestock vaccination campaigns and fodder production interventions.
  • Promotion of resilience building initiatives, such as climate-smart agriculture.
  • Returnee migrants should be prioritised for support to establish alternative livelihoods and should be included in social relief programmes.
  • Development of complementarity programmes (i.e. backyard gardening inputs for poor and very poor households).
  • Food price subsidy intervention should be prioritized and well-targeted.
  • The government to continue implementing agricultural inputs subsidies to include the short seasoned varieties, and supply be on time to facilitate timely planting.
  • Intensify nutrition education with more emphasis of feeding practices inclusive of exclusive and recommended duration of breastfeeding.

Food insecurity is a perennial problem in the country due to absence of a viable commercial farming sector.  Most people are dependent on labour-intensive but low yielding subsistence farming practices which rely on rain fed water. Over the years, the food crisis has been prevented from degenerating into outright famine by food assistance mainly spearheaded by WFP.

With elections due to be held on 7 October, most political leaders are promising to ensure food security by promoting commercial agriculture if elected to power. Such promises are not new and it remains to be seen if any of the politicians will finally walk their talk.