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Scorched!

  • Lesotho in danger of turning into complete desert in 15 years
  • Country has lost 40 tonnes of soil in last 40 years
  • Fato-fato deemed inefficient by undue politicization

Lesotho is among the countries most threatened by erosion-induced land degradation and desertification and, according to reports, the current rate of soil loss suggests the country will be a desert in less than 15 years.

Desertification is the process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation, or inappropriate agriculture while soil erosion is defined as the wearing away of topsoil. In Lesotho, this phenomenon is accelerated by protracted drought which is a result of climate change.

Topsoil is the top layer of soil and is the most fertile because it contains the most organic, nutrient-rich materials. One of the basic forms of soil erosion is water erosion, which is the loss of topsoil caused by rushing water.

The world has lost 33 percent of arable land in the last 40 years. Already Lesotho loses 40 tonnes of arable land every year to erosion.

theReporter’s recent excursions to several parts of the country revealed largescale land degradation, with some swathes of land already resembling a desert. Every district has portions of land in different stages of desertification.

One such place is in Mafeteng on the way to reach Mohale’s Hoek, where evidence of land degradation is very much visible, and at Borata and Holy Cross where indications of impending desertification are conspicuous.  

According to the ministry of forestry and land reclamation’s range and soil conservation coordinator, Malefetsane Nthimo, the above mentioned places are just examples of how real the threat of desertification is.

“Lesotho will not turn into a sandy desert like the Sahara, but will lose all its soil cover because our land is not covered in much grass thus making it vulnerable to all forms of climate change.

“If you look at the land where Polihali Dam is going to be built, there is still a danger of the place turning into a desert because it is not covered in any form of vegetation,” he said.

Nthimo added that Lesotho needs to prioritize issues that affect people’s livelihoods and conserve soil for future generations.

He emphasised that climate change is one issue that the country needs to take seriously, because the country no longer receives enough rain like it used to in the past. As a result, natural water sources and reserves have dried out, while dam and river levels have dropped significantly, affecting livelihoods in the process.

“A typical example is the ever dropping water levels of the Katse Dam. This is evidence of how much rainfall has diminished over the years. Recent reports indicate that as of 22 August 2019, the level of water ranged between 62 and 62.5 percent, thereby threatening the economy of South Africa which relies on the water from Katse.

“The rate at which Lesotho receives water shows that we are in the rain shadow, a region in the lee of mountains that receives less rainfall than the region windward of the mountains.”

Commenting on what the ministry and the government’s programme to conserve and reclaim land in order to prevent and combat desertification, Nthimo said the ministry is still doing its part even though some of its strategies have been hijacked by politicians.

“The fato-fato (soil conservation) initiative is a very good initiative in combating desertification but politicians have turned it in to a politicised agenda where people work just to get paid.

“People no longer understand or appreciate the real rationale behind the fato-fato as a tool to combat desertification, nor the environmental approach of this aspect,” he indicated.

Focus, he said, is needed in order to effectively fight desertification,

“When proper assessment has been done and it has been established that there is a critical place that needs to be worked on, let us not shift our focus just because a certain member of the parliament or a councillor wants to. With clear policies, we can be able to save the integrity of the initiative and dilute the political cloud that has tainted this approach.

“Lesotho is currently represented at talks where countries are meeting in India to show their commitment to combating desertification as per Sustainable Development Goal 15 which focuses specifically on fighting desertification. Animal breeds are going extinct hence the need to conserve and restore the use of terrestrial ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, drylands and mountains by 2030.”

“There is still progress though in some of the activities we are undertaking with councillors and the chiefs, who have shown commitment to fighting land degradation. We have embarked on a campaign to educate people on the dangers of overgrazing, and how to preserve their environment.”

According to the 1995 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), some of the efforts to fight desertification include programmes are carried out by a number of non- governmental organisations (NGOs) active in the land management activities, including the National University of Lesotho.

These programmes are intended to prevent land degradation, rehabilitate and reclaim degraded lands. However, until recently, such efforts mainly emphasised structural works such as terracing, contours, silt traps and diversions.

These strategies have been criticised for lack of participation and over-reliance on government resources, making them inherently non-sustainable.

Explaining how climate change and drought are likely to increase the rate of desertification, a meteorologist in the ministry of energy, Mookho Monnapula, warns that the impact of degradation is likely to increase greenhouse emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. 

Monnapula said, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) high temperatures affect vegetation growth, resulting in reduced vegetation cover. To a large extent, precipitation will be below normal suggesting insufficient soil moisture and high probability for drought.

Studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Lesotho Meteorological Services suggest that climate change scenarios for Lesotho include increasing temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, decreasing summer precipitation, increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. Lesotho experienced its heaviest rainfall in the last 10 years between December 2010 and February 2011, resulting in major floods which inundated most of the country. The farming sector suffered heavy losses, particularly in terms of crops and seasonal employment opportunities.

According to Monnapula, the UNFCCC implies that changes in land use such as deforestation are believed to have contributed significantly to the high carbon concentration in the atmosphere. By covering the land with vegetation, climate change can be mitigated and, at the same time, land degradation through erosion and nutrient depletion reduced.  Any activity that reduces soil cover enhances its vulnerability to degradation.

On the issue of dams like Polihali, UNFCCC believes to combat desertification there is need for dams to be designed and constructed in accordance with engineering specifications under the guidance and supervision of appropriate expertise from the ministry of forestry and land reclamation.

The effects of land degradation are felt most by people who rely mainly on crop farming. Loss of soil fertility and nutrients in the soil as well as loss of arable land have had adverse results as people are no longer able to get enough harvest from their fields.

Speaking to theReporter, peasant farmer Mokubu Khetheo said he has even decided to sell his fields in Berea after trying out different crops but with no luck.

“At the moment I am thinking of selling those fields because they no longer produce as much yields as they used to. I am also getting old and do not have enough energy to conduct any meaningful farming.

“Last summer I planted yellow mealies, but believe me, even though I used fertilizers I still struggled to harvest five 50kg bags from three hectares of fields.”

Pointing at one of the gardens he has planted peas in his backyard, Khetheo said he is not even sure if he will reap anything from that plot because crops are perishing from intense heat.

“Our soil is no longer fertile because it is washed away by the torrents that we experience. Relief rain is a thing of the past,” he moaned.

Maluti Mountain Cement

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