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The world’s first climate change famine Haphazard weather patterns have thrown Madagascar’s food cut


Clay, boiled roots and even the locusts that plunder their crops are the only food mothers in southern Madagascar can find to soothe their ravenous children.

The subsistence farming lives of the island’s rural communities have contributed little to the carbon emissions that are causing the planet to warm.


Yet they, more than those living in the polluting nations of the developed world, are suffering its “unprecedented” effects: the world’s first famine driven by climate change, not conflict.

Staff from the World Food Programme assess children in Ambovombe, a district where malnutrition is a severe problem, as people have no food and no means to buy any


“This is what the real consequences of climate change look like, and the people here have done nothing to deserve this,” Issa Sanogo, the UN resident coordinator in Madagascar, said of back-to-back droughts, cyclones and sandstorms that have left more than 1.1 million people in the Grand Sud region hungry.


Haphazard weather patterns have thrown the island’s crop calendar into disarray: five of the past six rainy seasons have failed in the south, killing livestock and whipping up sandstorms and swarms of locusts that have turned huge stretches of arable land to dust.


Rahovatae’s children can’t remember when it last rained in their parched village in south-eastern Anosy, one of the east African island’s 22 regions, which is suffering its worst drought for 40 years.

The mother of nine hacks bits off a cactus that will give the family at least something to chew. “It is bitter and sticks to the roof of your mouth even when you cook it, it doesn’t taste of anything,” she says.

In the absence of real food, people eat whatever they can find, including locusts. Rising world prices of staples such as wheat and maize push them further beyond the means of these people


Their hamlet is among many known to aid workers as “zombie villages”, home now only to those left to their fate, too frail to seek help in town several hours’ walk away. Those who do reach markets find little available or affordable.


In Ambovombe, the main town in Androy region, Madagascar’s most southern, desperate women and children snatch up the sandal makers’ leather scraps. It is hardly edible even after it has been softened in boiled, salty water.


Ecologists call Madagascar the eighth continent, with its many unique ecosystems where 90 per cent of its plants and wildlife species are found nowhere else on earth. They too, are also in peril unless the world stems its reliance on fossil fuels, the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) warned in its latest report.


A steadily growing population of 27 million and devastating coping strategies in response to the climate crisis helps to power a destructive cycle, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Rising global prices of basic foods such as wheat and maize are now beyond the reach of many, the island’s loss of tourism, fewer job opportunities and no social safety nets, have left limited means to survive.


Many farmers have already abandoned their land and turned to fish, adding to the impact of warming sea temperatures that have bleached the coral and reduced fish stocks. Others are cutting down whatever trees are left — 90 per cent of Madagascar’s forests have already gone — to produce and sell charcoal. Two trees are needed to make a bag of charcoal, which sells for about £1.50, enough to feed a family for a day. Conservation isn’t a priority for the hungry.


With no sign of rain and fields blanketed in the sand and the next planting season in October, the forecast for food production is bleak. Approximately 14,000 people are already struggling in famine conditions, a number destined to rise during the “lean season”, which runs until March’s putative harvest. The number of people facing severe starvation is expected to hit 1.31 million by Christmas.

Seed Madagascar, a British charity, reports almost 100 per cent success with the malnourished children it has treated at rural clinics


The speed with which the changing climate has wreaked such devastation has alarmed global health leaders. David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that Madagascar, among others, could face an “unprecedented famine of biblical proportions”.


Lisa Bass has worked on the Indian Ocean island since 2007, but has never seen such desperate parents or gaunt children: in the worst-affected areas, 27 per cent of under-fives are acutely malnourished.


“Families have sold their animals, land, and are bartering their pots and fishing gear just to get through the day, even in the knowledge that tomorrow they will have to deal with the impact of losing their means of subsistence,” said Bass, director of programmes and operations for Seed Madagascar, a British charity which manages development and conservation projects across Anosy.

Rasoa and her five children are left with no means to buy and some have resorted to selling most of their kitchen utensils to get cassava


Aid agencies and the government have given out hundreds of tonnes of nutritional supplements which are making an impact. Seed Madagascar reports almost 100 per cent success with the malnourished children it has treated at rural clinics.

But longer-term measures are needed to counter the brunt of climate impacts, including embracing drought-resistant crops, composting, seed cultivation and more effective systems to manage land and the rain when it does fall.


Sixty-three per cent of Madagascar’s population are small-scale farmers. Mahalomba Hasoavana slept in his field in Fort Dauphin to guard his cassava crops against thieves before eventually harvesting them when the roots were still tiny. Until the rest of the world changes its ruinous ways, he knows he too must do things differently.


“Everything is so unpredictable about the weather now. It’s a huge, huge question mark: what will happen tomorrow?” he said.

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