Swaziland waits for the rain

Published: 8 October 2002 0:00 CET

Grethe Østern and Nadine Hutton (photos) in Silele, Swaziland

The soil in Sihle Nhlanze's fields is hard as rock, and strewn with the sad remains of maize plants. For months she has been suffering because of the near complete failure of the last harvest, and now she is worrying about the next one. She is waiting for the rain to fall. At the same time, the Red Cross is on a tight schedule with the distribution of other critical ingredients, seeds and fertilizer.

"It was the sun. We planted lots of seeds, but got only three bags of maize. Hunger is the main thing in our life this year," laments 56-year-old Sihle.

"We need to plough soon, but cannot do it before it starts to rain. The first rains should have fallen by now, but there is no sign of a weather change," she says.

We are standing in the field closest to the cluster of small huts where she lives with her daughter and four grandchildren. Below us, more narrow belts of brown land stretch vertically down the rounded hill, with lines of dry, white grass between them. This is how people cultivate their land here in Swaziland's Lowveld region, which was particularly hard-hit by last year's drought.

Sihle says that she has not given up hope of a good harvest next year. But when we ask her how she and her daughter will plough all of this land, she admits that she does not think that they will be able to plant much more than the one field that we are standing in, because they have no money this year to rent cows for ploughing.

"We will do this one with a hoe," says the old woman.

And what about seeds? Do they have it? Sihle looks down and pauses.

"My daughter bought the seeds last year.
But I don't know if she can get the money this year, " she finally says and takes a deep, exasperated breath before continuing: "The food has become so expensive. We cannot even get money for food. It's just desperate. Many nights, we go to sleep without anything. You can see that the children are not OK. They are not healthy. At this time of the year there is usually some casual work to be had in the richer people's fields and at the big farms. But because of the drought, there is no work," she says.

Sihle is not alone with her frustrations and worries about the next harvest. When Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross Society in August took part in the emergency food security assessment of the Swaziland National Vulnerability Assessment Committee (VAC), the household survey showed that across Swaziland, 80 per cent of the households do not have seeds for the coming season, with nearly 100 per cent of the respondents in the Lowveld saying they do not have seeds.

Baphalali Swaziland Red Cross Society and the International Federation will be distributing seeds and fertilizer to 5000 households in the small kingdom of Swaziland. The International Federation will also be distributing such agricultural starter packs in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Malawi together with the national Red Cross Societies there, thus reaching a total of 100,000 households in the region. This will mean a difference to half a million people, if the climate is favourable.

"We are on a very tight schedule with the distribution of seeds and fertilizer," says the International Federation's Relief Coordinator for the Food Crisis Operation in Southern Africa, Alfred Hasenörl.

"For Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe, this needs to be given to the beneficiaries now in October. Otherwise it will be too late. If there are no unexpected delays, we will manage to do this," he says.

The bulk of the International Federation's distributions of agricultural starter packs will take place in Malawi, where the climate allows a few additional weeks for the planting. Not all of the funds for the Malawi distributions are secured yet, however.

"In a food crisis like this it is important that donors realize the importance of helping people with seeds and fertilizer, not just food aid. With agricultural inputs, recovery and rehabilitation is initiated, so that they can cover at least part of their food needs themselves next year. If they cannot cultivate their land this year, the situation will deteriorate further," says Hasenörl.

The International Federation coordinates its efforts also on the agricultural input side with those of the UN system and the governments of the countries affected by the food crisis in southern Africa. Looking at the region as a whole, Hasenörl says that it is clear that the total needs for seeds and fertilizer will be far from covered. The donor response is too little.

"In a food crisis, the recovery input has to be provided before the crisis peaks. The food crisis in southern Africa will peak from December through March, but the seeds and fertilizer have to be given to the affected families now. In the case of earthquakes, the fundraising is much easier because you give the bag of cement to a family after their house has been destroyed," says Hasenörl.

He says the international community should make every effort to maximise production next year. A good harvest in April/May 2003 would greatly ease the immediate food crisis and the emergency response. If the harvest is poor, this could be the third consecutive year that the most seriously affected areas suffer from production shortfalls, with disastrous food security ramifications.


National, regional and international climate experts met in early September to develop a consensus seasonal forecast for southern Africa. According to this 6th Southern Africa Regional Climate Outlook Forum, a weak to moderate El Niño event is expected to persist throughout most of the 2002/03 cropping season. While experts agree that a weak El Niño would probably have minimal effect on rainfall levels in the region, a moderate to strong El Niño would be more likely to lead to dry conditions that could adversely affect crop production. Because a weak El Niño was assumed by the climate experts, most of the region is forecast to receive normal to above normal rainfall during the first half of the season. Some parties of the countries currently facing exceptional food shortages though, have a slightly enhanced probability of receiving normal to below normal rains. For the second part of the season, January to March 2003, all of the affected countries are likely to receive normal or below normal rainfall, with the exception of the northern parts of Zambia and Malawi, which have an enhanced probability of receiving normal to above normal rainfall. In December, when the strength of the El Niño is known, climate experts will meet again to update the forecast for the second half of the season.

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