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Washington Post | By Michael Grunwald | 7 Jan 2003

THABA-TSEKA, Lesotho -- The crops here in the rugged mountains of Lesotho are failing because the rain came much too early. And much too late.

There were hailstorms and tornadoes, too. Then an early frost killed most of the maize sprouts that had survived the earlier bizarre weather.

Now this tiny kingdom of subsistence farmers tucked into southeastern South Africa is in the midst of a famine; the World Food Program estimates that nearly one-third of Lesotho's 2.1 million residents will need emergency handouts this year. And village elders like Makhabasha Ntaote, the 70-year-old matriarch of a huge and hungry extended family, believe something has gone haywire in the cosmos. The weather patterns, they say, no longer form patterns. "Frost in the summertime!" Ntaote marveled. "We never used to see weather like this. We don't know what to expect anymore from the skies. I think God is angry at us, but I don't know why."

Many scientists say that Ntaote, along with nearly 40 million other Africans at risk of starvation, may be among the first human victims of global climate change. The scientists are wary of attributing any specific weather event to general warming trends, and they are careful to note that the causes of the famine stalking the continent include not only erratic weather but war, intractable poverty, corrupt governance and the AIDS epidemic. And while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that human beings are contributing to global warming, the scientists do not try to blame the industrialized world's greenhouse gas emissions for the developing world's complex problems.

Still, climate experts say the "extreme weather events" that have plagued countries like Lesotho in recent years are remarkably consistent with predictions for a warmer world. The IPCC has forecast that Africa will be particularly vulnerable to the water shortages, disease outbreaks and food crises that are expected to be intensified by global warming, and the experts warn that a 30-year drought in the Sahel region that has scorched fields in Chad, Mali, Gambia and Mauritania could be a harbinger of other disasters. The international Red Cross has documented steady increases in weather-related disasters in Africa and around the world, and most experts say the risks will increase with time.

"In short," said Jay Lawrimore, chief of the climate monitoring branch for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, "the prospect of climate change for Africa is not good."

Cynthia Rosenzweig, a NASA research scientist who studies the impact of climate change on food security, said there was already strong evidence of a warming trend in Africa, far beyond the well-publicized melting of Mount Kilimanjaro's glaciers in Tanzania. The head of the World Food Program in Lesotho, Techeste Zergaber, said bluntly that the villagers already can feel the effects of global warming -- in their stomachs.

"It's an amazing thing for a scientist: The things we've been predicting for years are starting to happen now," Rosenzweig said. "It's already having real effects on vulnerable people. And the predictions get even worse."

Climate change skeptics generally acknowledge that the Earth is in a warm phase -- according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, nine of the 10 hottest years since 1860 have occurred since 1990 -- but question the significance of the trend. They especially dispute the climate change panel's contention that people are responsible for most of the warming through emissions of such greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide. Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, pointed out that several decades ago, many scientists believed the Earth was entering a dangerously cool period. The institute is a Washington research group "dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government."

"The climate is always changing," Ebell said. "There's always weird weather somewhere in the world. There are just way too many uncertainties to start attributing these things to greenhouse gases."

Here in rural Lesotho, accessible only by treacherous mountain roads that cut through Bushmen's Pass and God Help Me Pass, villagers don't spend much time debating the causes of their weather; they're busy struggling to cope with it. Lesotho is almost entirely dependent on rain-fed subsistence farming; it has virtually no irrigation. And most of the South African mining jobs that once provided livelihoods for its people have disappeared. With the world's fourth-highest AIDS rate, Lesotho is not well positioned to absorb shocks to its system. And for two straight years, the rudest shocks have come from the weather.

"We've all seen a great change in the weather," said Teboho Maskane, as he loaded maize donated by the World Food Program onto his donkey. "Our farms do not give us food anymore."

A recent U.N. report found that average farm yields in Lesotho have declined by more than two-thirds since the 1970s. Soil erosion is spreading fast, and soil fertility is deteriorating even faster.

"Agriculture in Lesotho faces a catastrophic future," the report warned. "Crop production is declining alarmingly and could cease altogether over large tracts of the country if steps are not taken."

The most egregious meteorological problems began after the planting season at the end of 2001, when torrential rains washed away many seeds. Then came a dry period just when the remaining crops needed rain to grow, ruining the harvest -- which falls in May, during autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. The rain finally arrived in June and July, too early to be of use for planting, then stopped well before the traditional rainy season. After it finally rained, in late October, and farmers began to plant, a summer frost killed most of their crops.

That was before three hailstorms.

"We're trying to figure out what's going on," said Joalane Mphethi of the Lesotho Meteorological Service. "The timing is all wrong. It's somehow shifted. We're going to have to adjust our models."

The villagers need to adjust too, and many are unsuited to make adjustments. Nearly one-third of the working-age adults have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and an estimated 73,000 of the children are AIDS orphans, adding huge emotional and financial burdens for already overextended families. Many hungry villagers have sold their plows and oxen.

Others have eaten their seeds. Nearly half the nation's children under the age of 5 exhibit signs of stunted growth. Many are too weak to walk to school. The government has offered to plow fields for free, but few farmers have anything left to plant.

Ntaote's fields have produced nothing for three years in a row. Her three sons are unemployed. She tries to support herself by collecting firewood, but her arthritic knees make it difficult.

"I don't know what's going to happen to this village," she said. "I don't know how we're going to eat."

So far, there has been no mass starvation , no indelible images of dying babies with bloated bellies. But international aid experts are increasingly worried that this is no mere emergency, that food shortages in places like Lesotho are becoming chronic. Tom Dobbin, a relief worker in Thaba-Tseka with the group Dorcas Aid, said he expects this May's harvest to be even worse than the last one. And he expects that the World Food Program -- which has raised only 62 percent of the food it needs to feed 650,000 people in Lesotho by March -- will stay here indefinitely.

"There's no other food here," Dobbin said. "People say doomsday things, and I believe them."Washington Post: