The first climate change famine is here: Madagascar is desperate

Thousands of people in Madagascar are suffering “catastrophic” levels of hunger and food insecurity as the country is hit by the worst drought seen in four decades, devastating isolated farming communities in the south. The situation could even worsen soon as Madagascar enters the traditional “lean season” before the harvest. 

Experts believe this is the first famine to be driven entirely by climate change.

A farmer in Madagascar. Image credit: Flickr / US Mission to the UN.

“The hunger season is coming,” Issa Sanogo, the UN resident coordinator on the Indian Ocean Island nation said in a chilling statement. “People may be left without the means to eat, without money to pay for health services, or to send their children to school, to get clean water, and even to get seeds to plant for the next agricultural season.”

Low levels of rain in the past two years have cause the most severe drought since 1981, especially in the Grand Sud area of the country. People are taking desperate measures to survive, eating locusts, raw cactus fruits, or wild leaves to survive, explains ReliefWeb, an information service provided by the United Nations. 

The UN estimates that about 1.4 million people are in high levels of acute food insecurity, with 30,000 experiencing the highest internationally recognized level of food insecurity. This is driven by a “devastating drought” and the global health crisis of the Covid-19, which has steeply increased food prices due to low availability, the UN said.

The worst is yet to come. The situation is likely to deteriorate further in the very near future. Over 500,000 children under the age of five are expected to be acutely malnourished through April 2022, of which over 110,000 are likely severely malnourished and require urgent life-saving treatment. Such a severe crisis is unprecedented, said UN resident Sanogo. 

“The drought has gone on for longer than expected, and the funds received are insufficient to cover current and future needs. We must act now: annual crops are a problem that will probably become a new crisis in the next agricultural season. There is an urgent need to implement long-term solutions,” Sanogo said in a statement.

Non-governmental organization such as the World Food Program (WFP) are carrying out emergency programs that involve food assistance and distribution, prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition. They are also working with small-hold in the south of Madagascar, helping them procure land and make the right decisions on what to grow. However, given the scale of the crisis, this is unlikely to be enough.

The role of climate change

Madagascar is the world’s largest grower of vanilla, most of which is produced in the northeast of the world’s fourth-largest island. Citizens in the south rely on subsistence agriculture from small landholdings. Shelley Thakral, a spokeswoman for the WFP, told local media the south is “vulnerable” as it’s dry, while the north has plenty of tropical rainforests and is more shielded by the effects of climate.

While Madagascar frequently experiences droughts and is also affected by the change in weather patterns caused by El Niño, experts argue that climate change can be directly linked to the current crisis. In 2016, the El Nino effect caused a rainfall drop of 75% compared to past 20 years in the south. This caused harvest losses of up to 95%. 

The people have also been affected by sandstorms. Their croplands are now filled with sand and cannot produce anything.

The recent landmark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported an increase in aridity in Madagascar, which is expected to increase if climate change continues, Rondrgo Barimalala, a Madagascar scientist told BBC. The current crisis should be a powerful argument for people “to change their ways,” he said.

Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center in California, told the BBC there’s a link with “warming in the atmosphere” and the current crisis in Madagascar and said the local government has to work to improve water management. They could forecast when there’s going to be above normal rains so farmers can use that information.

The situation in Madagascar, even taken on its own, is troubling. But given that we’ll be feeling the effects of climate change more and more, this is likely one of many such events to come. As families in Madagascar starve, we’ll have to contend with this thought

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