As Madagascar faces climate-linked famine, UN flags need to prepare
The cracked red earth and sunken eyes of gaunt children, their bellies swollen from acute malnutrition, bear witness to the devastation being wrought by Madagascar's worst drought in four decades.
As the south of the African island nation is pushed to the brink of famine, climate change researchers say such harrowing images should serve as an alarm bell over the need for drastic action to cut planet-heating emissions and climate-proof global food systems.
According to the U.N. World Food Programme, severe hunger due to the drought has touched over 1.1 million people with 14,000 of them one step away from famine.
The situation - already alarming - is set to worsen by the end of year, with the number of people in famine-like conditions expected to double, the agency warned at November's COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.
Hunger caused by weather and climate extremes is also surging in other parts of the world - and if nothing is done to prepare and protect people better, governments and humanitarian agencies will not be able to cope in the future, it added.
What triggered such extreme levels of hunger?
Food experts have said there is no single factor behind the crisis, but that worsening droughts linked to climate change alongside a fragile food system and the economic impacts of COVID-19 have all played a role.
While droughts are not new to Madagascar, the severity of the current drought has been heightened by extreme climate shocks, they said.
“The changing climate has meant that many families who were able to live off the land 15 years ago have now fallen into severe hunger. Families are scavenging for survival and many are living only on the food assistance they receive,” said Menghestab Haile, WFP's regional director for southern Africa.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a flagship U.N. science report, said in August that Madagascar has experienced increased aridity and that human-induced climate change is the main driver of Africa's rising surface temperature.
Humanitarian agencies say the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted supply chains, increased unemployment and curbed access to food markets.
Subsistence farmers have been so badly affected that aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said many have turned to foraging for insects and cactus leaves to eat.
Inadequate health facilities, poor sanitation and scarce, unsafe drinking water supplies have exacerbated an already vulnerable situation, according to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF.
Is this unprecedented?
Madagascar is facing one of the first climate-driven food security crises, according to Laura Pereira, an associate professor at The Global Change Institute, a research platform at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.
"One of the first, but certainly not the last ... We've been seeing a lot of unprecedented things happening this year - this is one of many," said Pereira, referring to the recent heatwaves and wildfires seen around the world.
Climate change was also found to be a key driver in the 2007 Lesotho food crisis, according to researchers from the University of Oxford.
Two years ago, Cyclone Idai battered the southeast African coastline, killing more than 1,000 people across Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe while displacing thousands and destroying crops.
Cyclones and flash floods, once rare in this region, have become a regular occurrence as climate change warms oceans and causes stronger storms, while rising seas make low-lying coastlines vulnerable to them, experts say.
"Idai wiped out the east coast of Africa and also lead to severe food insecurity," Pereira said.
Can we expect more of this in other parts of the world?
Other countries are likely to experience climate-fuelled food insecurity because Madagascar is not the only one facing a severe drought, according to climate experts.
In 2020, between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger already, in part due to the economic and supply chain effects of the pandemic, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The WFP noted that if global warming hits the 2C mark, an additional 189 million people could become food insecure - and in a 4C warmer world, that number could increase by as many as 1.8 billion, with vulnerable communities who have contributed least to the problem paying the highest price.
Southern Angola is also facing extreme drought, pushing Angolans into Namibia in search of food, while the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sahel region of West Africa are also at risk, said Shelley Thakral, a WFP spokesperson.
"Africa is a sensitive continent when it comes to climate shocks having a severe impact on communities, so we need to make sure we prepare for the worst and have plans in place," she said.
Other parts of the world including South Asia are also exposed to more erratic and severe heatwaves and monsoons, and it is even difficult for wealthier countries like Australia to respond to extreme droughts, said Pereira.
"(With more climate shocks), countries are more likely to look after their own needs before exporting to a global market, and this may impact countries dependent on imports," she said.
How can we fix this?
Emergency food aid is the most pressing short-term solution, aid groups say, emphasising the need for more long-term plans that focus on innovative farming methods such as rice fortification that carries a higher nutritional value.
In Madagascar, WFP has been reaching around 700,000 people monthly with emergency life-saving food as well as nutrition products for pregnant and nursing women and children.
Together with the government, it is also rolling out resilience-building activities that help communities adapt to the changing climate, including providing access to water, reforestation, stabilising sand dunes and economic support like access to microinsurance schemes in case of crop failure.
In September, 3,500 households received a payout of $100 each from WFP to recover losses from their failed maize crop, which helped families sustain themselves despite their ruined harvest.
And in the southern African country of Malawi, after drought and pests destroyed crops during the 2020-2021 farming season, nearly 65,000 farming households have received cash from a WFP insurance programme - one of the largest such payouts on the African continent, amounting to $2.4 million.
“Most farmers in Malawi rely on rain-fed agriculture but with the surging effects of climate change, livelihoods are cyclically disrupted, and this fuels hunger,” said Lobin C. Lowe, the country's agriculture minister.
“Scaling up crop insurance can enhance people’s capacity to anticipate and withstand shocks and mitigate their effects in the long run.”