Huge numbers of people in Madagascar are on the brink of starvation following four years of exceptionally low rainfall, with climate change having been identified as the single major cause of the catastrophe. Historically, famines have been produced by a combination of factors such as pests, natural disasters, human conflict, and political corruption, yet the United Nations (UN) and other humanitarian organizations say that this is the first to be generated solely by the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
The disaster is being felt most acutely in the so-called Grand Sud in the south of the island, where 1.14 million people are currently food insecure. According to the UN, the number of people living in level five “catastrophic” conditions – the most severe category of risk – could reach 28,000 by October, while 110,000 children face the prospect of malnourishment and “irreversible damage” to their growth and development.
Madagascar is not currently experiencing any of the natural or man-made conditions that are typically associated with famine, leading officials to blame climate change for the current situation. “This is not because of war or conflict, this is because of climate change,” explained David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP).
Likewise, Issa Sanogo, the UN Resident Coordinator in Madagascar, said that “this is what the real consequences of climate change look like, and the people here have done nothing to deserve this.” Given that the country contributes less than 0.01 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, the fact that Madagascans are now becoming major victims of climate change seems grotesquely unjust. As Sanogo points out, “[These] communities [are] suffering daily from the disastrous consequences of a crisis they did not create.”
People living in the south of the country have previously depended on the reliable monsoon rains in order to grow crops, yet changes in weather patterns have seen these downpours become increasingly erratic. The cumulative effect of numerous successive dry years has resulted in widespread crop failure, leaving hundreds of thousands of people with little or nothing to eat.
Reports from those on the ground in the Grand Sud bring home just how dire the situation has become, with many people going to extreme lengths to nourish themselves and their children. “Families have been living on raw red cactus fruits, wild leaves and locusts for months now”, said Beasley.
Meanwhile, WFP spokesperson Shelley Thakral says that “the number of children admitted for treatment for severe acute malnutrition in the Grand Sud between January and March was quadruple the five-year average, according to the latest government figures.”
Worryingly, things are likely to get considerably worse in the immediate future, as Thakral explains that “the next planting season is less than two months away and the forecast for food production is bleak. The land is covered by sand; there is no water and little chance of rain.”