According to United Nations officials, Southern Madagascar is on the brink of the world’s first climate-induced famine as hundreds of thousands struggle with the effects of prolonged drought. The World Food Program (WFP) recently warned that 1.14 million people are suffering from severe acute food insecurity, and a further 400,000 are headed for famine. Action Against Hunger adds that nearly 14,000 people are struggling to survive famine conditions. Further, 135,000 are malnourished, and over 27,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition — the deadliest form of hunger. Children experiencing this condition are four times more likely to die than healthy children.
This tragedy is the result of Madagascar’s worst drought in four decades. The island’s semi-arid southern regions have seen the worst conditions, with below-average rainfall for five years. This combined with deforestation and soil erosion, have turned the region’s arable soil into a wasteland. Since September 2020, the beginning of the lean season, the situation has been dire. The lean season refers to a dangerous period between planting and harvesting where job opportunities are rare, and incomes drop dramatically.
According to Jean Delacroix Tsimanantsiny, Deputy Head of Programs for Action Against Hunger in one of the hardest-hit districts, Ambovombe, “[T]he lean season comes every year, but right now, it is particularly hard.” It has persisted the entire year. Rain usually occurs in the months of January, February, and March, allowing the cultivation of varieties of melons and pumpkins. But this year, it hasn’t occurred, causing the population to suffer.
In response to the drought, people have already resorted to scavenging for food. UN officials say that “[F]amilies have been living on raw red cactus fruits, wild leaves and locusts for months now.” The remote location of many communities exacerbates food scarcity as poor infrastructure restricts the access of humanitarian aid organizations. Without rain, the WFP warns that the number of people facing phase five catastrophic food insecurity, or famine, will double by October.
WFP spokesperson Shelley Thakral wrote that “the next planting season is less than two months away and the forecast for food production is bleak.” “[T]he land is covered by sand; there is no water and little chance of rain.” The WFP is also clear about the cause of this looming humanitarian crisis “being driven by climate not conflict… These people have done nothing to contribute to climate change. They don’t burn fossil fuels…and yet they are bearing the brunt of climate change.”
The presence of the WFP and non-government organizations in the region indicates global concern and a strong desire to avert such crises. While these programs in Madagascar are underfunded, they are undoubtedly essential and have played a significant role in saving lives. However, the world faces a growing challenge. Our society is struggling to adapt to climate change, which contributes to more frequent and intense disasters. Although the amount of available aid has increased, the number of people requiring assistance has also. Globally, aid agencies now spend approximately $15 billion a year on humanitarian crises, which equates to only $60 per person in need. As the number of people caught up in crises increases, this model will fail. Given the number of underfunded aid programs, it already appears to be failing.
What is needed is innovative and decentralized locally-led aid, which derives support in terms of finance and expertise from the international community. In Madagascar, these long-term solutions may take the form of irrigations systems, drought-resilient crops, hardier livestock and permaculture to encourage reforestation and soil regeneration.