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Lesotho Drought Crisis to Continue for A Third Year

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS IN LESOTHO TO CONTINUE FOR THIRD CONSECUTIVE YEAR, WARNS UN

MASERU - Hundreds of thousands of people in Lesotho will require international assistance for a third consecutive year due to the combined impact of another devastating drought and the worsening HIV/AIDS epidemic, warned James T. Morris, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa.

Morris will arrive in Lesotho on Friday as part of a high level UN delegation including the Executive Directors of UNICEF and UNAIDS, Carol Bellamy and Peter Piot. They will meet with members of the government and visit some of the worst affected areas.

On Saturday, Bellamy and Morris will also attend the official launch of the government's Universal Testing and Counselling Programme.

"Any hopes that Lesotho's humanitarian crisis would begin to ease this year have been dashed by yet another drought and by the increasingly devastating impact of HIV/AIDS," Morris said. "Hundreds of thousands of people - many of them infected or affected by HIV/AIDS - will once again need the help of the international community to survive."

In February, the government declared a State of Emergency after it became clear that the country was heading for another year of severe food shortages. Early estimates indicate that Lesotho might only produce 10 percent of its cereal requirements in 2004 - leaving tens of thousands of families dependent on food assistance.

But non-food aid projects, which provide better access to water, sanitation, education and health care, will also be essential, in particular to help combat HIV/AIDS.

Lesotho has the fourth highest adult prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS in the world at 31 percent - a rate that shows no signs of dropping. UNAIDS estimates that 70 people are dying every day from AIDS-related causes, while 73,000 children have already been orphaned by the disease - a staggering 17 percent of all children.

"Tens of thousands of orphans in Lesotho are growing up without the care and protection they need," Bellamy said. "We must do everything we can to make sure they are in school and are getting the information, skills and support that will help protect them from HIV/AIDS and give them a fighting chance of having a healthy and productive future."

It will require an enormous effort to address HIV/AIDS in Lesotho, where the epidemic is destroying families and communities and threatening the very fabric of the state.

"Drought has slashed Lesotho's harvests over the past three years but HIV/AIDS is at the root of the food crisis - as well as of other crises in health and education," said Piot. "Lesotho's future depends on how successfully it tackles the epidemic and that depends on the help of the international community. Without our support, Lesotho has no chance of combating HIV/AIDS and will slip into perpetual crisis and eventually catastrophe."

The crisis in Lesotho has been further exacerbated by severe poverty - with around 2/3rds of the population living below the poverty line. The retrenchments in the South African mining industry have also reduced household income, especially in rural areas.

In July 2002, the UN launched a Consolidated Appeal for vital food and non-food aid for Lesotho and five other southern African countries - Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A second appeal was launched a year later in July 2003.

The international response to the appeals has so far helped to prevent the crisis from turning into a catastrophe by providing aid to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people, even though donors have been less willing to fund essential non-food activities.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered over 50,000 MT of food aid to over 370,000 people since the launch of emergency operations in mid-2002, while the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has provided assistance to many HIV/AIDS affected farming families through greenhouses, gardens and share-cropping.

UNICEF has provided thousands of orphans and vulnerable children who are not yet in school with literacy kits, as well as funding eight sites for the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS, which covers 50 percent of the country. UNICEF has also contributed substantially to the nationwide measles and vitamin A campaign.

"The international community has done a remarkable job in Lesotho over the past two years but our work is far from finished," said Morris. "Tens of thousands of people have depended on us since 2002 and will continue to do so for at least another year. And after two years of real struggle and hardship, they will be even more at risk."

While the drought in Lesotho is particularly bad, other southern African countries are also facing another year of crisis due to the triple threat of food shortages, HIV/AIDS and inadequate government capacity.

Swaziland has declared a National Disaster due to drought while another year of food shortages is also looming in southern and central Mozambique, southern Malawi and parts of Zimbabwe. All of these countries have high adult prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS, with Swaziland and Zimbabwe - like Lesotho - battling with rates above 30 percent.

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2003 WFP fed nearly 104 million people in 81 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.

WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.

For more information please contact:

Mike Huggins, WFP
Tel: +27-11-517 1655 (off)
+27-83-291 3750 (cell)

Sarah Crowe, UNICEF
Tel: +27-11-517 1617 (off)
+27-83-402 9812 (cell)

Richard Delate, UNAIDS
Tel: +27-82-370 2666 (cell)