Swaziland's Dry Spell Upends Sunny Outlook On Food

Mbabane — A prolonged dry spell with scorching temperatures has undone an optimistic outlook for Swaziland's harvest of maize, the staple. Instead, experts are now predicting another round of scarcity and hand-outs in the perennially food-insecure country.

"Rainfall was normal to above normal in spring and early summer, and half the country experienced rain every day in December 2013.

Unfortunately the lowveld had erratic rainfall when the rest of the country was soaked, and then the rains there stopped entirely. That occurred at the critical time when the maize crop was tasselling, and the maize cobs were supposed to come out," Andrew Dlamini, a statistician with the government's central statistics office, told IRIN.

"Particularly hard-hit [are] the southern Shiselweni Region and the eastern Lubombo Region. We did an inspection of those areas... [recently] and we were struck at how green and lush the mountains look.

But it's all weeds, and they are not the edible kind. But people are scrounging for whatever they can put in their and their children's mouths because the crops have been decimated by lack of rainfall and high temperatures," Charles Thwala, a crop production specialist based in the commercial city of Manzini, told IRIN.

This year's January dry spell was part of an emerging pattern of the past decade.

Charles Magongo, a consultant to the agriculture ministry, told IRIN, "Certain parts of the country go dry at mid-summer, and this has been going on since 2006 - long enough to establish a pattern and for mitigation plans to be considered.

"Even so-called drought-resistant crops like cotton and sorghum require some water. But the problem is the subsistence farmers consider these as [supplementary] crops to maize. They grow to eat, not to sell to market. What they want to eat is maize," he said.

A promising view

The January 2014 newsletter of the Food and Nutrition Security Working Group for Southern Africa, compiled by governments, the UN, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), NGOs and other partners, said ahead of the dry spell: "The season has been progressing well, and good rains have been experienced in most areas throughout the growing season until the end of December."

The January bulletin said the good rains had led to a prediction "to support higher food production than last year", but that, even so, food production would continue to be hampered by a lack of inputs and the lack of utilization of "new technologies".

"Erratic weather conditions also have a greater impact on food production as most of the agriculture is rainfall dependent. In December [2013], the country was hit by storms which caused damage to crops and infrastructure," the bulletin said.

Hunger a growing trend

Since 2000, the maize harvest has dropped by a third, to about 70,000 tons per year on average. In 2013, 142,000 tons of cereals was imported, double the domestic grain production, to meet Swaziland's annual cereal consumption of 215,000 tons.

About one in 10 Swazis, or 167,000 people, receive direct food assistance. In addition, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) also has a food assistance programme at about 1,100 neighbourhood care points (NCP) for rural pre-school children. In all, about 100,000 school-going children are provided nutritional support from a variety of actors, including private donors.

A 2013-2014 WFP assessment found that about 290,000 Swazis were at risk of food insecurity in 2014. A 2013 joint government and World Food Programme (WFP) survey found that 3.1 percent of Swaziland's roughly US$3.7 billion GDP was lost through malnutrition, as it takes a toll on productivity, among other issues.

"The assumption by government is that, at the end of the day, there are international food organizations that will prevent famine in Swaziland. But hunger exists on a daily basis for most Swazis - a slow, torturous wasting away for body and mind, in adults and especially in children," Thwala said.

A survey conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) from 2005 to 2013 found 31 percent of children under age five were stunted.

A need for action

Uneven rainfall patterns have provided ample water in the country's northern regions, and have fed the rivers that flow south and east into dry agricultural lands. However, small-scale farmers cannot tap into the rivers' water for irrigation as they have no means to finance such operations.

In 2004, the government initiated the Lower Usutu Smallholder Irrigation Project, an irrigation scheme it plans to expand this year, but the beneficiaries are agricultural cooperatives rather than individual subsistence farmers.

"Emergency food aid for Swaziland is too little and too late, and never addresses the fundamental problem of properly using agricultural lands," said Debora Simelane, a Manzini commercial banker and community volunteer at Ngwane Park's NPC for orphans and vulnerable children.

"Emergency food aid can stop famine but does not stop hunger. Swazis are starving slowly and the current generation of babies will be physically and mentally handicapped because of poor nutrition," she said.

Disputed priorities

About 70 percent of the population resides on communal Swazi Nation Land, administered by a system of chiefs, who parcel out the land. Without title deeds, small-scale farmers are unable to raise collateral for agricultural improvements to the land.

"Irrigation will help but alone cannot be the answer to making Swaziland self-sufficient in food production. That has to be tied to land reform, by giving small farmers title deed[s] to their land," an official at the agricultural ministry, who declined to be named, told IRIN.

However, land reform faces stiff political opposition: King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, imposes his authority through the chief system, and providing secure land tenure would undermine his rule, according to analysts.

"There is no political will for agricultural policy reform," Simelane said.

Land reform "is not on government's priority list. In 2014, the priority is finishing a US$1 billion airport," said the agriculture ministry official.

The new international airport at Sikhupe - which took 10 years to build and is about 90 minutes by road from the capital, Mbabane - will have the capacity to handle wide-body jets and process 400,000 passengers annually. In 2012, about 70,000 passengers arrived and left the country by air, mainly using Matsapha International Airport, near Manzini.

According to reports, Sikhuphe has not elicited interest from international airlines for its use, as they prefer to operate from OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

In 2003, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said Sikhupe, scheduled to open in March 2014, was both unaffordable and superfluous to the country's needs, and was diverting funds away from national development priorities, such as job creation, education and agricultural investment.

At the recent opening of parliament, Mswati decreed that government's latest priority is the construction of a five-star hotel and convention centre.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

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