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Geography, climate and population

Lesotho is a small land-locked mountainous country completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. It has a total area of 30 350 km2, a north-south extent of about 230 km and a maximum width of about 210 km. Altitude varies from 1 500 m to 3 482 m. Lesotho is the only country in the world that is entirely situated above 1 000 m in altitude.

Lesotho is divided into four geographical regions:

  • The mountain region covers 18 037 km2 (59 percent of the total area of the country) and is characterized by the bare rock outcrops of the Maluti range and deep river valleys, with elevations of 2 000 m and above;
  • The foothills region covers 4 529 km2 (15 percent) and lies at elevations from 1 800 m to 2 000 m between the lowlands and the Maluti mountains;
  • The lowland region covers 5 094 km2 (17 percent) and is situated along the western border and consists of a narrow belt of land with elevation of 1 800 m or less and width between 10 and 65 km;
  • The Senqu Valley covers 2 690 km2 (9 percent) and forms a narrow strip of land that flanks the banks of the Senqu (Orange) River and penetrates deep into the Maluti Mountains; elevations vary from mountains to lowlands.

Lesotho has extensive areas of shrub lands, in particular rangelands, and a modest area of plantation forests (based on Eucalyptus and Pinus), while only less than one percent of the total land area is forest and woodland. In a few almost inaccessible areas, very small patches of Afromontane Forest are preserved, while most areas of forest, woodland and savannah in the rest of the country have been cleared for agricultural use, which has exacerbated the problem of soil erosion. Land degradation in various forms is a dominant landscape feature in the country, and soils with both management and inherent fertility problems that influence the productivity of both arable land and rangelands are common. Two areas covering together around 6 500 ha are devoted to ecosystem protection: Sehlabathebe National Park and Masitise Nature Reserve.

The cultivable land is largely confined to the lowlands and foothills on the Western border and the Senqu River valley in the south. Effectively all the cultivable land in the country, and sometimes more due to encroachment into marginal areas, is currently cultivated. Much of the rest of the land area is utilized for extensive animal farming. In 2002, the cultivated area was 334 000 ha, of which arable land was 330 000 ha, while 4 000 ha were under permanent crops (Table 1). FAO studies predicted a decline of land under cultivation due partly to land going out of production from erosion and partly to settlement expansion around main towns.

The climate is temperate with cool to cold winters and hot, wet summers. Mean annual rainfall is 788 mm and varies from less than 300 mm in the western lowlands to 1 600 mm in the northeastern highlands. There is substantial seasonal distribution of precipitation and as much as 85 percent of the total can be received during October to April. The Senqu River valley lies in a rain shadow area with some places not receiving more than 600 mm per year. The mountainous regions receive snow during the unusually cold winters. January is the hottest month with maximum daytime temperatures exceeding 30 ░C in the lowlands. Temperatures on the mountains can fall to -20 ░C in winter.

Distribution of water and reliability of rainfall are serious constraints on agricultural production. Taken as a whole, rainfall in Lesotho is at a level that is adequate to sustain healthy agricultural activity. However, the erratic nature of its distribution is a major constraint for food production:

  • The seasonal distribution of precipitation varies considerably and thus the danger of rain falling at the wrong time, or falling too hard, or not falling at all when it is needed, is always present even if total rainfall has been adequate;
  • Extreme weather conditions occur periodically; droughts are said to occur three years out of every ten, heavy frosts are frequent and heavy unseasonable rains also occur from time to time;
  • Not just the geographical distribution of precipitation, but also the fact that water does not always collect in places where it is immediately accessible for agriculture constitutes a problem; this makes it necessary to build, for example, conveyance infrastructures.

The country has 1.8 million inhabitants (2004) with an annual growth rate of 1 percent (Table 1). Population density is 59 inhabitants/km2, and 82 percent of the population is rural. The lowland is the most populated and intensively cultivated zone followed by the foothills, the mountains and the Senqu river valley. Lesotho ranked 132nd out of 178 in the 2002 UNDP Human Development Report and over 49 percent of the population is ranked as poor. Improved drinking water sources are available for 76 percent of the total population, comprising 88 percent of the urban population and 74 percent of the rural population (Table 1).


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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