It was a windy June morning in Ha Lephalo, a tiny highland village overlooking rugged mountains and arid wasteland. Ha Lephalo is 50 kilometres north of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho—a small country landlocked by South Africa. That morning, I met the village chief, a 50-year-old woman named Itumeleng, who introduced herself to me as a biting wind swept across her wrinkled face. Lesotho’s steep, mountainous landscape—the country’s lowest point is at 1,400 metres above sea level—had earned it the epithet “Kingdom in the sky,” she said.
This geographical position has been both a blessing and a curse. Although its majestic highlands make the country a popular travel destination, reaching water sources is difficult because of its rugged terrain. The only source of water for Ha Lephalo had historically been a spring a two-hour trek away across slippery slopes. In 2015, even this source became tenuous because of a shortage of rainfall caused by El Niño—an irregular cycle of climate changes brought on by rising temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño triggered the worst drought to have hit Lesotho, and southern Africa, in the last 35 years.
In October 2016, as part of a series of drought-assistance measures, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, built a large water tank with a capacity of 20,000 litres in Ha Lephalo. It has since served over 1,600 people—the entire population of the village—and the water is predicted to last for about 30 years if the tank is maintained well. According to the United Nations office in Lesotho, half a million people in the country benefitted from $40.7 million (about Rs 270 crore) in international aid, which ranged from agricultural assistance and water-related interventions to cash grants. But the drought-relief was slotted to end in August 2017, and a second bout of El Niño has been predicted around the end of the year, making it unclear how Lesotho will manage with its scarce water resources.
Masheane Nkopane, the water and sanitation coordinator at World Vision International—an international relief and advocacy organisation—accompanied us to Ha Lephalo. He explained that Lesotho is still reeling from the current drought, with rural areas affected the worst. “Dryness has compromised climate-sensitive elements such as agriculture and environment, and also had collateral effects on health, increasing level of stress and security concerns,” he said. The safety of women, in particular, was frequently compromised because of the scarcity of water. A study conducted by the United Nations Population Fund between October 2016 and February 2017 noted that 53.8 percent of the 1,084 interviewees had experienced incidents of gender-based violence during the drought. According to Nkopane, women and children, who usually oversee the food and water provisions in Basotho households, had to wake up around 1 am during the drought to queue at the spring. These late-night visits meant that children often missed early classes at school the next morning, and many women were regularly robbed and harassed by men on their way to and from the spring.
“Every time my wife would leave the house I couldn’t help but wonder, what if something happens to her?” a Ha Lephalo local, one of the few passersby who had joined the conversation with Itumeleng, chipped in. Two others agreed that it had been dangerous for women before the arrival of the tank, but, they added, its presence had helped. “Rather than competing, the community is coming together in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity,” one man said. “However, it’s now our responsibility to preserve its role and functionality so that our children will be able to employ it fruitfully as long as possible.”
As noon approached, the clouds retreated, unveiling the mountains. We drove north to the Berea government hospital, a UNICEF-supported health facility treating malnutrition cases which could be connected to drought-related crop failure. Nozizwe Chigonga, a nutritionist, led us to the pediatric ward. We saw a young mother holding her ten-month-old baby to her breast, in a desperate attempt to feed him before he was taken away to treat a life-threatening case of malnutrition. Shayna Rosenblum, a researcher of public health at UNICEF’s Nutrition and Emergency Response team in Lesotho, accompanied me to the hospital, and explained that the incidence of malnutrition had peaked during the drought’s onset in 2015 and again in the winter of 2016. Dry conditions had caused a harvest failure, leaving around 725,000 people with a severe shortage of food. Some households, which would otherwise farm for themselves, were forced to buy maize, beans, peas and other staples in the market, where the shortage of food caused prices to rise by 40 percent in the period between late 2015 and early 2016.
Although the relief might have helped combat the water deficiency, Lesotho—particularly in its rural areas—faces another persistent issue: poverty. According to a study released by the World Bank earlier this year, around 58 percent of the total population of Lesotho was living in extreme poverty last year. The local government implemented the Child Grants Programme in 2007, one of its social protection schemes. On the basis of this, UNICEF provided children from 27,000 households with cash grants and emergency cash during the El Niño drought. The amount, an average of 500 maluti (approximately R2,400) per household per quarter, covered basic monthly expenses, including access to health and primary education.
Salvator Niyonzima, the resident coordinator for the United Nations in Lesotho, whom I met in Ha Lephalo, was optimistic about Lesotho’s social-protection programmes. But he added that the country would need to develop a strong coping mechanism to deal with weather-related disasters. “In a drought-prone country like Lesotho, the welfare implications of climatic hazards are wide-ranging,” he said. “We need to understand that communities eat what they grow and grow what they eat.” Besides short-term strategies, such as observing natural features to detect imminent droughts and developing supportive social networks, Niyonzima said different farming methods, including keyhole gardens—growing vegetables with less water and recycled material—and drought-resistant crop seeds, would help. He also stressed the importance of speaking to communities to understand their perception of the drought relief. “We need to be watchful so that we won’t be caught off guard in the future,” he said.
Just after sunset, Rosenblum and I drove through dying trees and aloe vera plants, and stopped at a rural smallholding about 40 minutes from the hospital. There was a small house adjacent to the smallholding. A fire was going in the tiny kitchen, and smoke seeped through a cracked door into the living room. Masetormo Pesa, the head of the house, told us that she and her husband had struggled to raise three children. The drought had hit hard and doubled their economic burden. “Land and animals used to be everything to us,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do about what has happened.” Like most of their neighbours, Pesa and her family had always engaged in rain-dependent subsistence farming, but the scarcity of water during the drought caused livestock loss, which exacerbated the already serious food shortage.
Pesa’s mother left the house in 2015, and seemed unlikely to return. Pesa conjectured that she was part of a wave of people who moved to South Africa in search of better economic opportunities during the drought. Pesa’s family began to fall apart after her mother’s departure: she explained that the sudden absence of a female relative, with whom she would split daily chores, disrupted the household. The family’s dire financial circumstances meant that Pesa’s oldest daughter, Rethabile, who is almost 16 years old, was unable to enroll in secondary school, and instead worked at a shop a few miles from her home. The family said she would return to school in a few months. “I have always dreamed of being a teacher,” Rethabile said. “I would like to see my younger brothers being offered the chance to realise their aspirations.”
Before heading back to Maseru, we pulled over to a small shop to buy refreshments and chatted with two vendors there. Inevitably, we spoke about the drought. Pointing to a portion of papa—a corn-based dish popular among locals—one vendor said, “It used to cost ten times less.” He listed several food items whose prices had shot up in late 2015 as a result of the drought. “Matsatsi a loyana,” said the other vendor, an older man, referring to an old Sotho proverb. “Tomorrow might not be as bad as today.”