Case Study: The Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains of Lesotho: linking livelihoods and food emergencies in a vulnerable region.

SJ Taylor, AfroMont Independent. Researching Global Change in African Mountains

Sue Taylor has formed AfroMont Independent, a research entity that will follow on from the University of Pretoria’s Swiss funded AfroMont science writing project. AfroMont Independent aims at developing concepts, sourcing funding and carrying out collaborative research that will benefit Africa’s mountains and mountain people.

Cash study – Lesotho and food emergencies

This case study focuses on two linked issues. First, the growing vulnerability of an African mountainous country, Lesotho, to droughts and famines, and secondly, the vulnerability the Maloti Drakensberg catchment (of great importance to the region) to catchment degradation and climate change. The Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains form most of the land surface of Lesotho and these mountains are the source of most of South Africa’s water, as well as water for Namibia, Botswana and for Lesotho itself. Lesotho is already beginning to experience the impacts of climate change (Ziervogel and Calder 2003; Ziervogel 2004), but the immediate risk to livelihoods and the catchment is land degradation and its impact on catchment functioning (Olutayo, 2012: 140). 

Mountain livelihoods within Lesotho

Lesotho is perhaps one of the few mountainous regions in Africa where the population is declining, particularly in the more remote regions. Land degradation and droughts are occurring more frequently in Lesotho and recurrent food emergencies typically put between 400 000 and 700 000 people at risk. The Government of Lesotho has declared several states of emergency (in 2002, 2004 and 2007) relating to failed harvests, with the worst being during the recent 2014 – 2017 El Niño linked drought.  The Lesotho government is trying to overcome these difficulties by putting new measures in place to modernise the agricultural systems (Mokotjo and Kalusopa, 2010).

Interventions – Out migration as a survival strategy

Labour migration into South Africa has been an important livelihood strategy for Lesotho for decades, with the South African economy absorbing many thousands of young Basotho men and women over the years (ACP Lesotho, 2010).  In 2010, remittances formed 26% of Lesotho’s GDP (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). Although there are no accurate figures of the number of Basotho living and working in South Africa, the South African government has estimated 500 000 persons, about 25 % of the Lesotho population (at the 2011 census). Thus, the economy of South Africa has become the ‘safety net’ for Lesotho. However, the out-migration of able-bodied men and women, as well as the impact of HIV/AIDS, has reduced the agricultural workforce to such an extent that viable agriculture, particularly in remote regions, has become almost impossible, compounding the many food emergencies (Workman and Ureksoy, 2017; De Waal and Whiteside, 2003).

Photograph above (SJ Taylor). The small town of Ficksburg, South Africa, part of an important transport and migration corridor between Lesotho and South African job opportunities. The Maloti Drakensberg Mountains of Lesotho can be seen in the distance.

Regional livelihoods supported by water from the Maloti-Drakensberg

The future of Lesotho and the region are intricately coupled. Lesotho is landlocked within South Africa, most of South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia’s fresh water comes from Lesotho’s mountain catchments, and this water supports around 45 million people (Taylor et al, 2016).  An immediate concern is that the catchments within Lesotho are in a state of semi-destruction because of poor land management. In terms of climate change, future changes to Lesotho’s high altitude catchments could include complexities beyond just precipitation and temperature changes. For example, increased  tree  cover  driven  by  rising  CO2 could  have  adverse impacts  on  stream flows. Similarly, hotter conditions and increasingly dry vegetation leads to increased risk of fire and this may further damage the vegetation cover in Maloti-Drakensberg catchments. 

Challenges and lesson learnt

The mountainous Kingdom of Lesotho is experiencing growing vulnerability as a food insecure nation because of under-development, land degradation, HIV/AIDS, and an increased frequency of drought possibly linked to climate change. Rural livelihood struggles throughout Lesotho have resulted in various coping strategies, the most significant being the number of Basotho labour migrants living and working in South Africa. South Africa has become an economic safety net for Lesotho.  Lesotho also relies heavily on donor support, e.g. from USAID and the United Nations.  Water provisioning by the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountain catchments to the southern African region of South Africa and Namibia is strategically important, and is already at risk from catchment degradation, and this risk may increase because of climate change.

Conclusion and recommendations

In preparation for climate change, urgent measures are needed to address the protection, restoration and sustainable management of high altitude catchments in the Maloti-Drakensberg of Lesotho.  Also, in Lesotho, land tenure needs to be urgently resolved so that landowners can invest in protecting their own land and thus avoid further damage to Lesotho’s mountain catchment areas. In protecting high altitude catchments, both the mountain livelihoods of the Basotho in the Maloti-Drakensberg, as well as the water security of the wider Southern African region, will be secured.


ACP. 2010. Country overview, Lesotho. ACPOBS/2010/PUB11.

DE WAAL A. and WHITESIDE A. 2003. New Variant famine:  AIDS and food crisis in southern Africa. The Lancet, 362.October 11, 2003. Sourced online at

European Union (EU). 2015. Improved Agricultural Production for Vulnerable Households in Lesotho. Delegation of the European Union to the Kingdom of Lesotho.

LESOTHO NAPA. 2007.  Kingdom of Lesotho. National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA).  Sourced online at

MOKOTJO W. and KALUSOPA T. 2010. Evaluation of the Agricultural Information Service (AIS) in Lesotho. International Journal of Information Management. 30 (4): 350-356

OLUTAYO O.A. 2012.  Mountain Watershed in Lesotho: Water Quality, Anthropogenic Impacts and Challenges. In: Krecek J., Haigh M.J., Hofer T., Kubin E. (eds) Management of Mountain Watersheds. Springer, Dordrecht. DOI

SNC. 2011. The Second National Communication (SNC) (for South Africa) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (South Africa). Eds G.F. Midgley, B. van Wilgen and B. Mantlana.  The South African Department of Environment (DEA). See link below.


BARKER N. 2016. The Drakensberg Escarpment as the Great Supplier of Water to South Africa. Eds  Gregory B. Greenwood and J.F. Schroder Jr. Mountain Water and Ice. Elsevier. Published as an e-book in November 2016.

WORKMAN C.L. and UREKSOY H. 2017. Water insecurity in a syndemic context: Understanding the psychoemotional stress of water insecurity in Lesotho, Africa. Social Science & Medicine. 179 (2017) 52e60.

Ziervogel G, Calder R. 2003.  Climate variability and rural livelihoods: assessing the impact of seasonal climate forecasts in Lesotho. Area, 35: 403–417. doi:10.1111/j.0004-0894.2003.00190.x

Ziervogel G. 2004. Targeting seasonal climate forecasts for integration into household level decisions: the case of smallholder farmers in Lesotho. The Geographical Journal. Volume 170(1): 6 – 21.

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