Drought and famine stalk desperate Madagascar

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Climate News Network

Erratic rainfall, locusts and cyclones are causing havoc in desperate Madagascar. Now the climate crisis adds to the misery.

By Kieran Cooke

Dense swarms of locusts ravage croplands. Starved of food, local people are forced to eat the locusts and other insects. Changes in climate threaten famine across large areas of increasingly desperate Madagascar, an island nation of 27 million people off the east coast of Africa.

The outlook is stark. Amer Daoudi, a senior director of the UN’s World Food Programme, (WFP) says people are desperate, particularly in the semi-arid south of the country, where there’s been a prolonged drought.

“Famine looms in southern Madagascar as communities witness an almost total disappearance of food sources, which has created a full-blown nutrition emergency”, says Daoudi.

“People have had to resort to desperate survival measures, such as eating locusts, raw red cactus fruits and wild leaves.”

Single day’s rain

Daoudi, a veteran aid worker, says that on a fact-finding tour of villages across southern Madagascar, he came across horrific scenes. “They are on the periphery of famine; these are images I haven’t seen for quite some time across the globe.”

For years droughts have been a regular occurrence for the people of understandably desperate Madagascar, particularly in the south. The World Bank says climate change is exacerbating the area’s problems.

“Now climate change poses potential risks and has already increased average temperatures in the region, combined with erratic rainfall patterns which have compounded the effects of droughts, cyclones and the influence of plagues of locusts.”

The annual rains have failed to arrive in several recent years. In southern Madagascar the rainy season occurs in November and December. Last year it rained for only one day over those months.

“They are on the periphery of famine; these are images I haven’t seen for quite some time across the globe”

As a result the local crops – mainly maize, manioc and beans – failed. Cattle and goats died for lack of water. Farmers have no seeds to plant fresh crops.

WFP and other aid organisations estimate that more than 1.3 million people are in danger of running out of food. Many living in the south migrate around the country at various times of the year in search of work. The Covid pandemic has shut down this valuable source of cash. The drought, combined with Covid, has meant most services have halted.

“Children have abandoned schools”, says the WFP. “75% of children in this area are either begging or foraging for food.”

Apart from the drought, rising temperatures and locusts, farmers in southern Madagascar have had to cope with another climate phenomenon – an increase in both the number and ferocity of dust storms, locally called tiomena.

The next pandemic

These storms have blown in regularly over the last few months, covering farmlands with a thick layer of dust. Aid agencies, starved of cash, have struggled to cope, though some progress has been made.

UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, together with Madagascar’s central government, opened a new 180 km water pipeline to the south in 2019. Women do most of the water fetching and carrying duties in Madagascar, often having to go more than 15 km for supplies.

The new pipeline has brought relief to some, but many thousands of households in the area are still without readily accessible water supplies.

Drought is a growing problem worldwide as the climate undergoes often dramatic change. In a recent report the UN likened drought to the Covid pandemic. “Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic and there is no vaccine to cure it”, it said.

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