Madagascar Suffering Through Worst Climate-Induced Famine

“Southern Madagascar is the only place in the world with famine-like conditions that are NOT driven by conflict, but the #ClimateEmergency,” tweeted United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). The island state off the Eastern African coast is experiencing alarming levels of starvation, which was described as “beyond belief” in a report by UN World Food Program (WFP).

Droughts are caused by drier than normal conditions leading to water supply issues. The southern part of Madagascar is facing its worst drought in 40 years, according to a report by NASA Earth Observatory. Climate-change-induced heatwaves and rising temperatures is only making it worse. The lack of rainfall, along with other environmental factors, has affected the region’s vegetation and agricultural production leading to one of the world’s most severe hunger problems. High levels of soil erosion and deforestation have converted arable lands into wastelands.

NASA Earth Observatory’s Kathryn Hansen spoke about a phenomenon known locally as tiomena (red wind) that is exacerbating the situation. This means that a series of migrating sand dunes and windblown sands could be blanketing farmland, crops, forests, and infrastructure. Some crops in southern Madagascar are already buried under sand after a series of strong dust storms this year.

These extreme drought conditions have prevailed in the region for the past four years, wiping out harvests and cutting off people’s access to food. Locals have resorted to surviving on locusts, raw red cactus fruits and wild leaves. A joint report by UNICEF and WFP said, “More than 1.4 million people are food insecure in southern Madagascar and the number of people in ‘Catastrophic’ conditions (IPC Phase 5) risks doubling to 28,000 by October. The worst-affected Ambovombe-Androy district, where global acute malnutrition rates have touched an alarming 27 percent is at risk of famine.” The crisis is expected to worsen with the lean season around the corner, the time of the year when food stocks run low.

With the food production in 2021 expected to be less than 40 percent of the average in the last five years, the population may not be able to sustain itself. The continuous price rise of basic foods, the decrease in markets, and the added limitation in access to food, market, and jobs due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions is pushing people to widespread starvation.

WFP and UNICEF have been working closely with the Malagasy government and partners since last year to reduce severe hunger levels, but the current situation calls for more support. Many children are suffering from malnutrition and the current efforts to work on hunger can go hand-in-hand with treatment for malnutrition. The UN, the government, and other partners need to prioritize working on access to safe water for everyone. In addition to the current funding for food programs and cash distribution, WFP needs $74 million over the next six months to save people in the south. The efforts to prevent the catastrophe in Madagascar needs more sustainable solutions. Technological interventions like robust weather forecasting methods and advanced agricultural techniques need to be explored. The ideal solution can be averting the current climate crisis, but it is also important to equip the local population with capital for research and innovation to find suitable methods for the current geological conditions.

The international community should take this as a example of their incompetence and lack of urgency in working on the climate crisis. Elaborating on this, UN World Food Programme’s Shelley Thakral said, “This is unprecedented. These people have done nothing to contribute to climate change. They don’t burn fossil fuels… and yet they are bearing the brunt of climate change.”