Maseru — On a windy day in Thaba-Bosiu, 40km from Lesotho's capital, Maseru, Nkoliopa Mosotho is inspecting his parched fields. Like many other rural farmers in Lesotho, he was banking on winter snowfall to soften the iron-hard ground and allow him to plough, but none fell.
"It is a very worrying situation; normally by this time of the year it is good to prepare your soil so that in October, it will be easy to cultivate, but it's so dry," he told IRIN. "It will take many days to finish ploughing my fields, and my oxen will tire or even die after that."
Ntsieng Mafeto, 65, in nearby Qeme, is also struggling. "I should have planted some hay for my sheep, but we last had good rains in March, and I am really concerned because its lambing season now, but the streams are dry and there is no single shoot of green grass on the ground."
After two disastrous years for Lesotho's farmers, the 2012/2013 planting season yielded much improved harvests of maize - the staple crop - and sorghum. However, the lack of early rains and snow needed for winter cropping and soil preparation suggests a less promising outlook.
Winter cropping poor
Snow only fell in the mountainous areas of the country and not in the lowlands, which have the most productive land. "It's true we received some rain, but in general it was below average and generally, the winter was warm," said Mokoena France, climate statistician with the Lesotho Meteorological Service.
The consequences are far-reaching. Winter cropping is crucial to the livelihoods of many people in rural Lesotho. Wheat, one of the main staple foods, is mostly sown in winter to take advantage of the moisture from snowfall and early spring rains.
Thousands of Basotho who live in mountainous areas, where crops such as maize and sorghum do not do well, rely heavily on growing wheat, which can then be exchanged for maize with people in the lowlands. Winter cropping also includes planting peas and hay for animals, but the farmers IRIN spoke to said they have not succeeded in growing either.
Like many farmers in her area of Ha Moruthoane in Maseru District, Maletuka Moroka, 70, relies almost entirely on a nearby spring to water her vegetable garden, but the lack of precipitation has caused the spring to dry up. "I make all my living from the vegetables I plant here, but if there is no water it means I will have to stop and wait for rain. I tried planting some vegetables, especially peas, a few months back, but they have now dried up," she said.
Sekhonyana Mahase, senior crop production officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, said the lack of moisture this winter was bad news for farmers and for the government's crop-sharing scheme, which is running in eight of the country's 10 districts.
In return for paying the full costs of seed, fertilizer and tractors for planting wheat, the government takes 70 percent of the harvest, leaving farmers with the remaining 30 percent. But Mahase said yields are expected to be low due to the lack of rain.
Forecasts not promising
"The dry winter has had an impact," confirmed Victor Ankrah, a child survival and development specialist with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Lesotho.
According to a recent household assessment of nutritional status carried out by UNICEF, 12 percent of the population is currently food insecure. "The reason they're food insecure is because the winter harvest was not good," Ankrah told IRIN.
Although the figure is down from the same time last year, Ankrah said the number was likely to increase between January and April - the peak of the lean season before summer crops are harvested.
Ankrah said that the wells and boreholes rural communities rely on for water were not expected to dry up, providing the country received normal rainfall levels between August and December. "However, for quite some time now the rainfall pattern has been very erratic, with very low rainfall levels during those months."
The Lesotho Meteorological Service has forecast that rain will be average or below average over the next three months, and that many areas will remain dry.
According to Mahase, of the Ministry of Agriculture, this is likely to have a negative impact on summer cropping. "We are really faced with a momentous task. Even if it rains now, it may be a little too late for some farmers who have not prepared their soil," he told IRIN.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]