Madagascar on the brink of famine due to climate crisis, say aid workers

As many as 1.1m people are facing starvation in the south of the island nation

 Schoolchildren from Ankileisoke Primary School eat lunch offered by a World Food Programme scheme, in the Amboasary-South district of southern Madagascar. Photograph: Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images

Schoolchildren from Ankileisoke Primary School eat lunch offered by a World Food Programme scheme, in the Amboasary-South district of southern Madagascar. Photograph: Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images

 

Madagascar is on the brink of a famine due to climate change, according to aid workers in the country.

As many as 1.1 million people in the Indian Ocean island’s south are facing starvation, while 14,000 have already been declared at a level of “catastrophic need”, in what is seen as a test case for how climate change is altering the world.

“Malnutrition rates have been multiplied by four,” said Jean-Benoit Manhes, deputy representative of Unicef in Madagascar, in a phone interview from capital city Antananarivo. He said the amount of rain falling in the south region has steadily decreased over the last decade, “and critically the last two years there’s been little to no rains at all”.

While normally crops like rice, maize and cassava would be harvested in September, the lack of rain and families selling everything they had left to survive mean that this is likely to yield dramatically less than before.

The global coronavirus pandemic also affected the government response and the level of international funding available, exacerbating the situation.

“Every year, more than 40,000 children die before the age of five [in Madagascar], but the situation is always more complicated in the south because of lack of infrastructure, climate change and limited public services,” said Mr Manhes. “This year we have a perfect storm . . . A crisis will turn into famine if nothing is done.”

On top of that, water shortages mean many are drinking contaminated water. Even when children can be treated for malnutrition, weakened immune systems mean they are more likely to die from malaria or simple diarrhea.

‘Cause and consequence’

Mr Manhes said climate change is both a “cause and a consequence” of poverty. While the north of the island has been affected by cyclones, the south is experiencing sandstorms, and “because people are poor, they tend to cut trees to make wood, charcoal and things like that”, leading to a “vicious circle”.

“It’s called the red island now – it used to be the green island – because of deforestation and increased drought,” he said.

Madagascar has a population of roughly 26 million people. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with three-quarters of citizens living below the international poverty line. While the economic situation was improving before the Covid-19 pandemic, the upward economic growth trajectory has been substantially impacted in the past year, according to the World Bank.

Last week, the World Food Programme (WFP) appealed for €61 million, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation appealed for an extra €32.9 million, to provide aid to people affected by the drought.

“The issue is no longer about how bad it is – it is extremely bad. Children are starving, children are dying. I met a mother with an eight-month-old child who looked like he was only two months old. She had already lost her older child,” said WFP senior director of operations Amer Daoudi, after visiting Sihanamaro, one of the worst-affected areas.

“We are already witnessing whole villages shutting down and moving to urban centres. This puts additional pressure on an already fragile situation.”