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Scarcity in the midst of plenty

Despite the presence of abundant rivers and streams, Swaziland is perennially on the brink of drought and starvation owing to poor land and water management policies.
James Hall

An irony of this small landlocked kingdom in Southern Africa is its inability to water cropland in a country well traversed by rivers and streams. So mighty are two of the rivers wending through Swaziland - the Great Usuthu and the Komati - that government in co-ventures with South Africa and Mozambique intends to harness them with dams for recreational and hydro-electric use.

The irony of available but underutilised water has taken a tragic dimension as a drought that devastated crops earlier this year will bring a quarter of the population to the brink of starvation by December. The Times of Swaziland posed: "The problem is lack of water, so how about a large-scale irrigation project that could save thousands of lives? Why can't some of the Komati River water be channeled down to the drought-stricken areas?"

In fact, a scheme already exists to divert water from the Komati-fed Maguga Dam, Swaziland's largest public works project that was co-financed with South Africa. The water will flow directly into drought-affected areas.

The problem, then, is not lack of water, but poor land and water management policies. Agricultural experts and disaster relief workers foresee a continuing cycle of drought-induced crop failures until the fundamental matter of land and water use is addressed. "To meet this problem is a matter of overcoming cultural inertia", says Ronnie Mhlongo, a sociologist attached to the University of Swaziland. He adds: "Eighty percent of Swazis live under chiefs in communal Swazi Nation Land. It's a welfare system: free land to homestead, to raise crops and graze cattle in exchange for allegiance to the chief. But no capitalisation is available to meet challenges like water shortages."

Peasant farmers are not given title deeds to their holdings. This is consistent with an age-old belief that no one person is entitled to own land, and that right to an area is secured through usage. The system worked for centuries, but with one drawback- food shortages. Swaziland has one of the world's highest birth rates, which has kept its population rising sharply, despite the effects of AIDS on the country. Famine has therefore remained a perennial threat on communal Swazi Nation Land.

Starvation looms as an annual crisis in the hot dry Lubombo region to the east. Because of a lack of irrigation in the Lubombo, a National Disaster Task Force, originally set up as an emergency board, is now a permanent body. Ben Nsibandze, who heads the board, says, "Donor nations are good for assisting us, and we work with the meteorological department to forecast drought conditions that will lead to food shortages."

Peasant farmers depend on rainfall to water their crops. This is true even with farms bordering rivers and streams, whose waters could be harvested for irrigation. Instead, when the rains cease to fall, food security problems loom. The systemic problem, say developmental organisations, is that the lack of title deed ownership prevents a vast majority of the nation's farmers from obtaining capital to make infrastructure improvements on their land.

"Swazis don't own their land, and so they can't use their land as collateral to obtain bank loans," says a loan officer at a bank in Manzini, the country's main commercial hub. Without bank loans, investment in irrigation is impossible, even if there is a desire to do so. The perennial cycle of crop failures, followed by food relief from donor organizations, has bred complacency among some peasants that their needs will be met by the government.

But the extent of this year's food and water crisis means that for the first time some Swazis face the prospect of starvation. "The demands are just so great, and the traditional social safety net that sees that each member of an extended family is looked after by someone is frayed and in some places gone for good," says Thuli Dludlu, an aid worker in the Lubombo region near the Mozambique border.

"Lion" Mahlalela, a farmer in the northern border town Mananga, has a homestead only 100 metres away from the Komati River, which flows 20 metres wide during summer, and is never entirely absent even in dry winter months. "I would like to tap into the river for irrigation. But there is no money. I stopped growing maize, and I'm growing cotton, which is drought resistant. I sell the cotton at the market, and I am saving for a pump and pipes. But this will take a long time."

Only electric or petrol-fueled pumps are available in Swaziland. Foot pumps that require muscle power only, and which are proving useful in Asia and other parts of Africa, have not yet been introduced to Swaziland. Government has another agenda in mind: water will be made available to co-operatives.

"Co-operatives are the way to go," says Roy Fanourakis, the minister of agriculture. "Small holding farms are not the most efficient way to utilise land, or generate income from cash crops that can be grown for the export market." Fanourakis points out that irrigation water from the Maguga Dam is indeed being made available to peasant farmers, but they must band together into co-operatives, combining their smallholding farms into a larger entity for more efficiency and profits.

This month, government applied for a $50 million loan from the World Bank to develop its Lower Usuthu River Project. Nearly a quarter of the population could be affected by the project, particularly peasant farmers in water-scarce areas. But again, irrigation water from the project will be given to peasant farmers on condition that they create agricultural cooperatives.

The push for land reform, to give farmers ownership of land they have cultivated for generations, is moving forward, backed by the Swaziland Law Society and human rights groups."If I had title deed to my property, I'd get a bank loan tomorrow, and I would drill a borehole. All my neighbours would do so. That would be the end of our water crisis. It's simple," says farmer Mahlalela.

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