Together to find solutions for the water problem in the mountains


Small scale farmers in Lesotho are becoming organized and creating networks in order to find solutions together to overcome problems such as scarcity of water, the main resource of the mountainous country.

Water, the export that does not reach Basotho small farmers

Lesotho is the only country in the world that is entirely situated above 1,000 meters in altitude. The country’s main natural resource is water, which however is largely exported to neighbouring South Africa. Ironically, erratic rainfall distribution and droughts affects the vulnerable rain fed agriculture sector and creates a situation in which subsistence farmers struggle to produce enough food. Food security is directly linked to the scarcity of water available for smallholders to irrigate crops and rear animals.

This is happening in a country where homestead food production has become an increasingly important source of food supply for rural households, given the situation of rising poverty, growing unemployment. The rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in Lesotho has limited labour availability of many families, leading to a weak and declining agricultural productivity nationwide.

Small farmers in this mountainous country face the challenge of increasing their food production with limited resources, including small plots of land, low fertility of soil and unreliable water supply.

Some farmers, like Molikuoa Tumane, the Chairperson of the Thabanene Small Scale Farmers’ Association, are opting for the use of water harvesting techniques that allows them to irrigate their crops and increase their yields. Mr Tumane is also the Chairperson of ESAFF Lesotho, which is creating a network of farmers’ associations in the country giving them a voice and enabling them to influence decision-making processes on policies and practices affecting them, at national and East and Southern Africa regional levels.

Harvesting water to combat water scarcity

Distribution of water and reliability of rainfall are major constraints on agricultural production in Lesotho. Taken as a whole, rainfall in the country is at a level that is adequate to sustain healthy agricultural activity. However, the erratic nature of its distribution, including heavy unseasonable rains, periodic droughts and heavy frosts, constitutes a major constraint for food production, besides degraded shallow soils that are the most common in smallholders’ land. Mountain slopes, do not have much capacity to retain the rain water, so the precious resource runs off, causing erosion and becoming unavailable for farming.

Thabanene is a small village at the base of the mountains in Mafeteng district, Southern Lesotho. Small scale farmers find that there is not enough water available for them to raise their livestock and to irrigate their vegetable gardens. This constitutes a major constraint on food production and income potential for the households. This area is frequently hit by droughts, so the rivers are dry during part of the year. Also, there are no dams to collect water running off from the mountains, their construction would need a level of funding, that is not available to this mountain community at the moment.

For these reasons, some farmers have opted for building their own water harvest structures using available resources, sometimes assisted by organizations that provide materials for the construction. The structures are generally tanks, made of stones and cement, and they are fed either from the roofs or by redirecting runoff water from paths and roads using channels. The water harvested is used by individual farmers for livestock and irrigation, so they can combine dry farming, for staple crops like maize or potatoes, with vegetable production. This is contributing towards meeting household food security needs, as well as supplying excess produce sold at local markets.

Of the twenty-two members of the Thabanene Farmers’ Association, eleven of them already have water harvest structures in their homesteads, and the aim is for all of them to have at least one. Drinking water is still a problem, as the villagers are forced to buy it from private boreholes in the nearest town, Mafeteng, although there are plans to build communal boreholes in Thabanene, which would cover this supply.

The network of small scale farmers in Lesotho

Thabanene Small Scale Farmers’ Association is member of ESAFF-Lesotho, the East and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers’ Forum, which was established in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The objective of this regional Forum is to enable small farmers to speak as a united voice so that their issues, concerns and proposals become an integral part of policies and practices at national, regional and international levels.

The ESAFF branch in Lesotho wrote an action plan recently, which draws their strategy to mobilize farmers and create the base for the establishment of a smallholders’ network in the country. ESAFF-Lesotho seeks to empower small scale farmers, giving them ownership over their activities. They must take the responsibility of administering their funds, so they go straight to activities and projects in the farmers’ benefit. The initiative of Thabanene Association in water harvesting is an example of activities led and owned by farmers.

According to their action plan, and using the funds that they have just managed to raise, ESAFF-Lesotho’s campaign around the country is expected to start in December 2006. The objective is to engage farmers and associations to create district ESAFF committees that will be the grassroots of the network.

The rich mountains of Lesotho need a sound management

All the main resources of Lesotho are or come from the highlands. Water, wood, stones for building or even diamonds are found there. The potential for the use and development of activities around these resources is huge, but at the same time the environment is extremely fragile. For this reason, there needs to be a good sustainable management system in place, with the education and empowerment of the mountain communities as a first priority.

The economic activities of small farmers in the mountains should also be respected and improved, particularly the management of livestock, as there is capacity to produce the best mohair and wool, together with good meat, providing the farmers association receive the appropriate training on stock farming.

A critical future, with a window for hope

The future of smallholder farmers in the mountains of Lesotho is at a critical moment, as the older generations are worried about the ones that would follow them. Youth in Lesotho is being strongly hit by HIV/AIDS pandemic, with about a third of the adult population being HIV positive. This fact needs to be accounted when thinking of the future, as one of its effects is that a large young working force is simply disappearing. Elder farmers like Mr Tumane are seriously concerned about the future if the tendency continues, and find it difficult to predict what is going to happen.

There is, though, a positive view, as there are new opportunities arising for the development of mountain communities in Lesotho, such as the ESAFF network, that can strengthen farmers and become a dynamic movement in the country. This initiative will bring an improvement for the livelihoods in the rural areas and, one day, will be able to create a common market with all the products from smallholder farmers in Southern Africa.


This interview has been realized by ALMEDIO Consultores with the support of the Charles-Léopold Mayer Fondation during the regional meeting organised by the World Mountain People Association - APMM.

 Interview to Molikuoa Tumane, Chairperson of the Thabanene Small Scale Farmers’ Association and Chairperson of East and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers’ Forum (ESAFF)-Lesotho. Thabanene Village, Mafeteng District, LESOTHO.

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