Madagascar is on the verge of suffering the world’s first “climate change famine”.
According to the United Nations (UN), tens of thousands of people are already suffering “catastrophic” levels of hunger and food insecurity after four years without rain.
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The worst drought in four decades has devastated isolated farming communities in the south of the country, where families turn to insects to survive.
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“These are conditions of destitution caused by the climate and not by conflict,” says Shelley Thakral of the United Nations World Food Program.
The UN estimates that 30,000 people are currently suffering from level five of food insecurity – the highest internationally recognized – and there are fears that the number of those affected could rise sharply when Madagascar enters the traditional “scarcity period” before harvest.
Successive droughts have completely dried the soil in the south of the country. — Photo: Ocha/Reuters/Via BBC
“This is unprecedented. These people have done nothing to contribute to climate change. They don’t burn fossil fuels… and yet they are suffering the consequences of climate change,” says Thakral.
In the remote village of Fandiova, in the district of Amboasary, some families recently showed a visiting WFP team the locusts they were eating.
“I clean the insects as much as I can, but we have almost no water,” says Tamaria, a mother of four, who has no last name.
At least half a million children under the age of five are at risk of acute malnutrition, according to the UN — Photo: Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP/Via BBC
“My children and I have been eating this every day for eight months, because we don’t have anything else to eat, nor do we have rain to be able to harvest what we’ve planted”, she adds.
“Today we have nothing to eat except cactus leaves,” says Bole, a mother of three, sitting on dry land.
She says her husband recently starved to death, leaving her with two more children to feed. A neighbor of theirs also starved to death.
“What can I say? Our life is all about looking for cactus leaves, over and over, to survive.”
How to improve water management
Although Madagascar suffers frequent droughts and is often affected by changing weather patterns caused by the El Niño phenomenon, experts believe that climate change could be directly linked to the current crisis.
“In the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we noted that aridity in Madagascar has increased. And this is likely to intensify if climate change continues.”
“We can see this in many ways as a very strong argument for people to change their attitude,” says Dr. Rondro Barimalala, a Malagasy scientist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
Looking at the same atmospheric data at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Climate Risk Center director Chris Funk confirmed the link to “warming the atmosphere” and said authorities in Madagascar needed to work to improve water management.
“We think there is a lot that can be done in the short term. We can often predict when above-normal rains will occur and farmers can use this information to increase their production. We are not powerless in the face of climate change,” he says.
The impact of the current drought is also being felt in larger cities in southern Madagascar, with many children forced to beg in the streets to get food.
“Market prices are going up – three or four times. People are selling their land to get money to buy food,” adds Tsina Endor, who works for a charity organization, Seed, in Tolanaro.
His colleague, Lomba Hasoavana, claims that he and many others were taken to sleep in their cassava fields to try to protect their production from people desperate for food, but this has become too dangerous.
“You could risk your life. I find it very, very difficult because every day I have to think about feeding myself and my family,” he says.
“Everything related to time is so unpredictable right now. It’s really a huge question – what will happen tomorrow?”