Mbabane — Felix Matsebula, a subsistence farmer in Swaziland's eastern Lubombo region, near the Mozambique border, always suspected that the columns of smoke rising from the surrounding sugarcane plantations and blackening the sky were harmful to his crops, and a reason his harvests have been declining for years.
"You hear about global warming and greenhouse gases. You can see for yourself how the sun is almost hidden by the smoke here," he said.
This type of burning - common on sugar cane plantations, farms, hills and vacant lots - is increasing the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas and, in the opinion of many experts is contributing to changing the nation's - and the world's - climate for the worse.
Dr Ben Nsibandze, Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, told IRIN, "It used to be the rains would fall in August and September, and the farmers would know when to plough; now it is October and November we see the rains fall. There are dry spells in January, just as the crops are maturing. This year the drought was nationwide."
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), over 400,000 of a total population of 1 million Swazis are now dependant on some form of food aid - double the number in 2006.
Swaziland falls within the summer rainfall region of the subcontinent, where about 80 percent of the precipitation falls during the summer months of October to March. The climate is also subject to steep temperature and precipitation gradients from west to east because of the fall in altitude of about 4,000 feet over a distance of about 80km.
The higher areas are generally cloudy, misty and several degrees cooler than the rest of the country, while the mountainous region in the west is humid and wet, with the rain falling in occasional violent storms.
In the middleveld and lowland regions conditions are drier, and the climate ranges from sub-tropical to tropical as one moves east. The rainy season generally lasts from October to May and is warm and wet, while cooler, drier conditions prevail from June to September.
Experienced farmers like Matsebula do not need weather service statistics to tell them there are now more hot days than when he was a herd boy on his family farm thirty years ago.
Swaziland has always experienced severe thunderstorms and windstorms, but it was not until 2005 that Manzini, in central Swaziland, experienced its first tornado.
The weather service does not have the statistics to make long-term comparisons, but in the last 15 years there has been a 12 percent increase in days with temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius, and up to a 50 percent decline in precipitation during the months of September and October, the start of the rainy season in some parts of the country. The frequency and intensity of storms is also on the rise.
Agricultural experts gathered on Thursday 19 July to find answers to Swaziland's perpetual crop failures and ongoing food shortages at the first National Agricultural Summit, convened by King Mswati in the country's second city, Manzini.
They blamed climate change for declining food production. "Climate change is real and its effects are [clearly visible]," said Emmanuel Dlamini, Director of the National Meteorological Service.
Noah Nkambule, a former principal secretary at the ministry of agriculture, pointed out that "it has become very difficult for farmers to produce as the effects of global warming hit. The country is faced with drought across all four regions, and there is a need to establish secure water supply for all."
Officials were quick to blame industrialised nations for climate change, and a local environmental group, Yonge Nawe, said that on a global scale Swaziland's CO2 emissions were "insignificant".
This is true, compared to China and the US, but most participants agreed that Swaziland was not completely blameless. "Global warming, for which Swaziland cannot be said to be entirely innocent, continues to show its effects here," said Musa Shabangu, an agriculture extension officer in the Manzini region.
"Population pressure, combined with drought, has made some areas unable to support crops. What were once marginal lands are now desert, and productive lands are becoming marginalised," he commented.
"There are many reasons for this: monocropping leaches nutrients from the soil; trees are uprooted for firewood, leading to soil erosion; too many cattle grazing also contribute to soil erosion, but climate change also," Shabangu said.
According to Jabulani Fakudze, a farmer attending the agricultural summit, "It's not just the sugar plantations that are set on fire; Swazis like to burn all the winter grass everywhere. It started hundreds of years ago when sheepherders burned the old grass to clear the way for the new grass. There are no sheepherders today, but people still love to burn grass."
Laws regulating grass burning are generally ignored, even by law enforcement officials, and burning is also the main method of waste disposal.
Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world - official statistics put 70 percent of the population living on less than a dollar per day - cheap second-hand cars imported from Asia have made automobile ownership affordable to more. The number of car registrations for new and used vehicles doubled last year.
The government and UN agencies are addressing the consequences: WFP is stepping up its food aid assistance, and the ministries of agriculture and natural resources are collaborating on handling agricultural and water issues.
"Government has made efforts to secure water resources for people through projects like Maguga Dam [a joint South African-Swaziland venture in the northwest of the country]," said former principal secretary Nkambule. Other schemes focus on maximising crop yields and finding drought-tolerant crops.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]