Madagaskar's Ravaging Famine

Photo source: France 24
Naveed Qazi Editor | Globe Upfront

W ith more than a million people facing desperate food shortages, Madagascar has seen its worst drought in forty years. The UN estimates that due to low rains, half of the Grand Sud area’s population has been affected, where people rely on agriculture, livestock and fishing. 

The UN World Food Programme says acute malnutrition in children under five has almost doubled since early 2021 in most districts in the south. Ambovombe has the highest rates with a global acute malnutrition rate (GAM) of twenty seven percent. More than half of the children suffer from stunted growth, a condition caused by malnutrition, over the first 1,000 days of life.

Julie Reversé, emergency coordinator for Madagaskar for Médecins Sans Frontières, commented in an interview: "without rain, they will not be able to return to the fields, and feed their families. And some do not hesitate to say that it is death that awaits them if the situation does not change, and the rain does not fall." 

Violent sandstorms, locally known as tiomena, in December 2020, made the situation even worse, as they affected farming land and food such as the cactus fruit, which is often eaten during the lean season. The farmers often talk of the earth changing and barren lands.

Most poor families rely on hunting for wild foods and leaves which are difficult to eat, and can be dangerous for children, and pregnant women, as per inputs by the Famine Early Warning System Network. Aid agencies have also reported locals eating termites and mixing clay with tamarind.

According to a Guardian article written by Kaamil Ahmad and Rivonala Razafiscon in Antananarivo, tiomenas have become more and more frequent, and had been affecting a large range of territory. There have been no rains in the last three years. The violent winds have killed the cactus plants, and destroyed cattle, sheep and goats.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a multi-agency body that monitors global food security issued a statement of alert of a sustained deterioration in food insecurity in the south of Madagascar from April to December 2021. The statement read: ‘Over 1.1 million people are in high acute food insecurity due to insufficient rainfall, rising food prices and sandstorms. The lean season is expected to begin earlier than usual for the current consumption year, as households will deplete their low food stocks due to minimal production.’

The drought has left many of the farmers unable to grow rice, and have been just eating one meal a day. In response to the crisis, MSF began running a mobile clinic in late March 2021, and has so far treated more than 800 children for malnutrition, a third of whom were in a severe condition.

During the hours working in the clinic, MSF staff were other noticing illnesses in the areas they work in, including bilharzia (a waterborne disease caused by parasitic flatworms), diarrhoea, malaria and respiratory infections. They said the illnesses were caused by malnutrition, as well as a lack of clean water.

According to the UN’s food agency, the number of people suffering from hunger has risen by about 85%, since 2020, because of the accumulative effects of years of drought, and people having to sell livestock, and belongings to buy food.

Wood Food Programme Executive Director David Beasly believes that there are women and children who had walked for hours, just to get to the food distribution points. These people were the ones who were healthy, and could make it to these landmarks. He further said that the situation was ‘enough to bring even the most hardened humanitarian to tears’, and that families have been eating ash and even living on locusts for months.

The interesting thing to note is that all is happening due to climate change, and not due to war or conflict. Madagascar, is the first country in the world, that is experiencing famine-like conditions, as a result of the climate crisis.

A local, Lomba Hasoavana, explained to Harrison Jones, writing for ‘I am seeing people cycling for a whole day to buy a bunch of bananas and then cycling a whole day back again, just because there is literally no food in the town where they live.’ Paula Amour, who works in nearby Sainte Luce, added: ‘When people make shoes from the zebu skin, people are eating the pieces of skin that are left – when there is no more food, it is considered a luxury.' Another local, Sylvestre Mbola, believes that people face further problems if they try to grow crops, because of the number of people stealing it from the fields in desperation.

Since 2020, Wood Food Programme has been working closely with the Malagasy Government, and other partners to address severe hunger. The agency needs around 78.6 million dollars to provide lifesaving food till the next lean season.

World Food Programme’s regional director in southern Africa, Lola Castro, described hundreds of adults and children as ‘wasted,’ and said hundreds of kids were just skin and bones and receiving nutritional support, indicating the gravity of the situation.

Back in 2015, a similar drought happened, and hundreds of Malagasy children were rumoured to be starved to death in southern Madagascar as well. The situation came into attention of then President Rajaonarimampianina, who then visited the region bearing rice and cash. He had noticed people tired and unconscious. They were then taken immediately to the health clinic, where they were given Plumpy’nut, a peanut based paste. Other families, during the past drought, had breakfast consisting of cassava leaves, and red cactus fruits. There were rumours of a bubonic plague, and polio in 2014, too.

The government remains fundamentally unstable and financially broken. The economy was ranked the worst on the planet by Forbes magazine in 2011. The outside world is familiar with Madagascar through animated films, and nature documentaries, but knows very little of its people or their poverty. As the fourth biggest island in the world, it lies 300 miles off the coast of mainland Africa. So, it is not vulnerable to refugees. It is an island, with no war, no conflict, and no geopolitical interests. It is very much off the map. There is an urgent priority list but Madagaskar will probably never attract large donor aids as happened in Tanzania, Uganda or Malawi.

Locals believe that they have been suffering since decades, due to El Nino. For many, it is a day-to-day survival.

In the past, when the situation was not this serious, villagers grew small quantities of crops rich in nutrients, like avocado, sweet potato and maize, but the harvest lasted for only two months, and they were forced to sell the food for cash, much needed for school books, clothes and other necessities. The government’s previous efforts of expanding nutrition centres, and recruiting more volunteers to educate their villages about nutrition, importance of breastfeeding, and cooking food have been vague and incomplete. There are also no targets to increase sanitation and clean water access.

Coming back to the recent drought of 2021, it is difficult to get aid to the island nation, and journalists have been unable to access the areas worst affected, due to coronavirus-related restrictions in place. Aid agencies have also struggled to attract public attention to the crisis, and aid funds are lacking, or just not enough.



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