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Swaziland's King Declares Humanitarian Disaster Amid AIDS Crisis - 2004-02-19

The king of Swaziland has declared a national humanitarian disaster because of the country's AIDS crisis and a long-term drought. The king has appealed to the international community for more aid.

Swaziland's absolute monarch, King Mswati, has resisted pressure to declare a national emergency for the past two years, while his kingdom has grappled with a crippling drought. But after yet another failed harvest, he has decided to officially call it a humanitarian disaster.

On behalf of the king, the prime minister has urged the international community to help Swaziland respond to the crisis.

Nearly one-quarter of the Swazi population is dependent on food aid from the U.N. World Food Program, and more than two-thirds of the country's one million people live on less than a dollar a day.

WFP Spokesman Richard Lee says the declaration of a national disaster will make it easier for the agency to appeal to donors for aid.

"It does not automatically free up extra money, but what it will do is clearly show how serious the situation is," he said. "Often, there is a view that small countries, such as Swaziland and Lesotho, which declared a national disaster last week, are sometimes ignored by the international community. But this will clearly show that the situation is very serious, and will once again warn the international community that much more needs to be done."

In declaring the national emergency, the prime minister said three years of drought combined with soil erosion and AIDS have crippled the Swazi agricultural sector, and created a serious humanitarian crisis.

Swaziland has the second-highest HIV rate in the world. About 38 percent of the population carries the virus that causes AIDS. Unlike most countries, the infection rate is about the same in both rural and urban areas, meaning that the disease has devastated Swaziland's farming communities.

The last time Swaziland declared a state of emergency was 1992. Some donors require the declaration of a national disaster to free up special emergency assistance funds. But analysts believe the king has been reluctant to declare one, because he did not want to draw attention to his country's finances.

Last month, King Mswati drew criticism when he asked the government for $15 million to build new palaces for each of his 11 wives. He has also come under fire for buying himself a new royal airplane, even though Parliament voted against the purchase.

The king's lavish spending habits, at a time when a quarter of his subjects are facing starvation, has increased pressure from the international community for democratic reforms.