Caused in large part by El Nino – a periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean’s waters – severe droughts and cyclonic floods have left nearly 100 million people across three continents without enough food and water to survive.
The El Nino effect
This El Nino event is one of the strongest ever recorded and the rains in southern, and much of eastern Africa, have failed for the second year in a row. The result is that some 49 million people across Africa will require food assistance within the next year, a recent report from the World Food Programme stated.
On the day we visit Nqobile's homestead, it is barren and close to 42 degrees in the shade. Showing us around her once full kraal, Nqobile explains how the drought has impacted all areas of her life. “When the grass died here, my cows began to eat anything they could find, even plastic. Then they began to die,” she says. “Each cow was once worth around 5,000 Swazi Lilangeni (around £227) each. You do the maths – I do not have the funds to replace them.”
For Nqobile the accumulation of a herd 26 animals strong was a labour of love. She began building the herd with the help of SOS Children’s Villages Family Strengthening Programme in Siteki.
Our Family Strengthening Programmes aim to keep families that are at risk of collapsing together by strengthening family bonds, improving parenting skills and supporting self-sufficiency. Nqobile was one of the Programme’s success stories, reaching self-reliance after just one year. Now she feels like she is back to square one, receiving a monthly allowance from SOS Children just so that she can survive.
“The biggest challenge is water,” she says. “With water we can irrigate our food garden so that we at least have food to eat.” But the borehole, dug by SOS Children, has been producing nothing but a muddy mess since early February.
Joyce Mashinini’s vegetable patch was once the pride of the Old Naledi Township she lives in on the outskirts of Tlokweng, Botswana. Joyce is a beneficiary of our Family Strengthening Programme in Tlokweng and, like Nqobile, had achieved self-sufficiency. She grew ten different types of vegetables which meant that she could feed her five children a fresh and varied diet. She produced so much that she was able to set up a small stall at the local market and earn a regular income. But the garden hasn’t produced anything in months.
“Life has become tough because of this water crisis,” says Joyce. “I have to buy vegetables which I used to harvest from my backyard. We are struggling and we don’t know if this is going to end.”
The story is the same in Lesotho where the drought is affecting more than 750,000 people – a third of the population. Here too, beneficiaries of our Family Strengthening Programmes are struggling. As crops fail, food prices are rising rapidly and families have no choice but to reduce the number of meals they have a day. Some parents have made the tough choice to migrate to South Africa where they hope to find some form of employment. More often than not, their children stay behind in Lesotho.
Local, practical solutions
Despite the challenges we are trying to find local and practical solutions. Having worked in Lesotho for over 20 years, we are well placed to negotiate with the government for support when it comes to developing coping-mechanisms for families under SOS Children’s care. We are currently constructing a water reservoir which will serve our programmes in Quthing. We are also helping families to engage in more sustainable farming practices, for example by encouraging them to grow more drought resistant crops like sweet potato.
In Swaziland, we have bought three ten-thousand litre tanks for water harvesting. Each tank is connected to new water gutters that are being added to the corrugated roofs of the house in the village. We are supporting the most vulnerable families in the communities we work in with a monthly income to help them buy much needed food. Importantly, we are also working to improve resilience to occurrences like El Nino, as well long-term food-security.
“We’re looking at getting people to plough earlier, with the first rains in September,” explains Dudu Dlamini. “At the moment most people cannot afford to plant with the first rains and they wait for the rainy season to start before they plant. If the rain season does not come again, they will lose their crops again, and again, and again.”
The plan is for SOS Children to provide a variety of more drought-resilient seeds and assist in the purchasing or renting of tractors so that people will be able to plough their land with the early rains and plant their crops earlier. “If we do not do this now, more and more families will become food insecure and simply be added to the growing list of people without hope. We may very well be looking at another year of drought. It is incredibly important that we enable people to have good harvests.”
Back in Swaziland…
…Nqobile is thankful that some rain did fall in March - El Nino hopefully passed its peak this month, offering some hope to the millions of people it has affected. But it is too little too late – the World Bank estimates that 50,000 people have been pushed below the poverty line as a result of the drought in South Africa alone. As Dudu Dlamini, National Director for SOS Children’s Villages Swaziland points out, “The rain will not save the failed crops.”
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