15 March 2016

Drought leaves an SOS Children’s Village community in distress

Children and SOS co-workers collect water in Siteki, Swaziland. Photo by Max Bastard

It was after 9 pm when the police pulled the SOS Children’s Villages truck off the road as it wound down the steep Lubombo Mountain road. The six children in the back, guarding the tanks so that not a drop of water spills during this ten-minute drive in the dark, became very scared. They knew this trip was risky, but they volunteered because there was really no choice. There is no water in SOS Children’s Village Siteki, in eastern Swaziland.

The police demanded that either the children get off or the water be removed, because the weight of the load was too dangerous. The children jumped off without waiting for Khabo Mthethwa, family strengthening coordinator and village manager, to negotiate with the police. “Go!” they said to her, “Take the water home, we will wait.”
 
Khabo left the children with the police as she sped to the SOS Children’s Village, quickly getting co-workers to help her offload so that she could return for the six children.
 
“I had a second to make that decision: leave the children or leave the water. I am responsible for the children, but that also means I have to provide water”, she says, standing beside a slim stream of water captured from a spring. She and a few of the older children from the village are here this morning for their usual water run. This is the only open source of water in the area and community members queue with plastic buckets, patiently waiting their turn.
 
A 10-year-old girl in an SOS community garden in Siteki, Swaziland. Photo by Max Bastard

When a village is part of its suffering community
 
Khabo’s difficult decision shows the challenges faced in Swaziland and other African countries hit hard by a lingering drought blamed in part on an El Niño pattern that has fuelled weather extremes globally. The United Nations estimates that more than a million children require treatment for severe malnutrition in Eastern and Southern Africa, while overall in the region nearly 50 million people face food insecurity.
 
SOS families in Siteki have been without water since February, when their borehole sputtered out a muddy mess. Running water from the government water corporation, at first rationed, has stopped. As this SOS Children’s Village is an integrated one, meaning individual SOS families live within the surrounding community, the water shortage has now left both SOS families and families in the community in dire need of assistance.
 
The SOS borehole is linked to the community food garden for households headed by grandmothers, though the dried up plot no longer produces food. Swaziland has been hard-hit by severe drought conditions since late 2014, leaving stunted or dead maize plants and more than 300,000 people without enough food or water. The country declared a state of emergency on 18 February.
 
Phindile Luthuli has been SOS programme director in Siteki for three years. She is convinced the number of affected people in the country of 1.2 million people is much higher. “Siteki is drier than the rest of Swaziland, but these past few months have been traumatising. One neighbour here is a former beneficiary of our family strengthening programme, but she exited voluntarily as she became self-reliant. We found her one morning outside her homestead feeding a collapsed and emaciated cow by hand. For a week she fed that cow and it died anyway. This is supposed to be the end of the rainy season as we are heading into our dry season. I don’t know how people will cope in a month or two. Weather experts in Swaziland tell us this will persist until 2018”, says Phindile.
A boy sits on the lap of his SOS mother, Dudu Shongwe, at their home in Siteki, Swaziland. Photo by Malik Wagner
 
Grannies are the backbone of the community
 
Nqobile Gamede, 54, has a large kraal, large enough for a healthy herd of cattle. It is empty. In November she had 26 cows and now she has two. It was Nqobile that fed her dying cow by hand. “When the grass dried here my cows began to eat anything they could find, even plastic, and they started to die. They were worth around 5,000 Swazi lilangeni [€290] each. You do the math. I am in a difficult situation because I do not have the funds to replace them. Our biggest challenge is water. With water we can irrigate our food garden to at least have food to eat,” says Ngobile.
 
Her homestead is barren bar for one tree, but even in its shade it was 42 degrees one recent day.
 
Nqobile and Thandi Sifundza, 60, are both members of the grannies’ food garden. Whereas Nqobile’s grandchildren have grown up, Thandi still has eight in her care. She has a tap on her homestead, but it has been cut off because she cannot afford to pay the 3,000 lilangeni (€176) she owes. Even if it were open, it would be subject to water rationing.
 
The only income she receives is the 48 lilangeni, or €3, per child SOS Children’s Villages provides as a monthly allowance. This allowance was introduced in early 2015 when the organisation realised the consequences of the El Niño weather phenomenon was placing thousands of children at risk. “It is not enough, but it is all we could afford,” explains Khabo.
 
Khabo says that SOS Children’s Villages has requested Thandi’s water bill from the local authorities to settle it for her. “If we pay it she will have water for her family and the grannies’ food garden. At this point we cannot ask for another water meter to be installed in the community when we have this one that is already here. One day I had to ask a beneficiary for some water because there was not a drop in the village. So our village has benefitted from the family strengthening interventions. Isn’t that strange?”
 
SOS families working to cope
 
SOS programme directors in Swaziland agreed in February to buy three 10,000-litre tanks for the 12 SOS families in Siteki. Each tank is affixed to a concrete slab, and a pipe connects it to the water gutters that are being added to roofs. The cost of erecting one such system is 12,000 lilangeni (€700).
 
“We have not even completed the installation and SOS mothers are already worried that the three will not be enough. We cannot afford more. We couldn’t even afford these three, but we had to bite the bullet. This is a priority”, says Phindile.
 
With their access to farmland, the SOS families in Siteki have a responsibility to provide food to programmes in Mbabane and Nhlangano. The large piece of land donated by the traditional authority in Siteki made it possible to allocate a plot to independent SOS youth in Swaziland, as well as a parcel to SOS mothers from all programmes. Neither is being cultivated.
 
The Siteki chicken coop provided meat to SOS programmes in Mbabane and Nhlangano but that ended in January. In one day 250 of the 660 chickens perished in the heat, according to Khabo. “We carried buckets full of chicken to each family house and I told mothers to start slaughtering, plucking and skinning so that we could still save what we had left. That day we worked well into the night”, Khabo says. “Since December we have lost our chickens and our gardens. We have nothing left.”