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Watch: Madagascar's hidden hunger crisisSandstorms, drought and poverty have pushed the vast region

Mother-of-four Horariby with her malnourished children at their home in Marofoty village CREDIT: Simon Townsley

Watch: Madagascar's hidden hunger crisis

Sandstorms, drought and poverty have pushed the vast region into a hunger crisis – with 1.3m people experiencing severe food insecurity

‘They’re killing us slowly’: sandstorms and drought stalk Madagascar

The cost of water has leapt 300 per cent and locals are surviving on cactus plants – is this the future of climate change famine?


The mother of four shakes the grubby plastic jerry can and sighs. “It’s not really enough,” she says, gesturing first to the almost empty five litre container, then the skinny children peering through the doorway. “But it has to be enough for now.”

Not so long ago, water was plentiful in this hot and arid part of southern Madagascar, an island some 250 miles off the coast of Africa. Then the drought descended.

In the last two to three years the price of water has jumped 300 per cent, in a region where 91 per cent of people earn less than $1.90 a day. Incomes here are inconsistent at best, but a family selling two to three bags of charcoal a month could expect to earn between 20,000 and 30,000 Malagasy ariary – $5 to $7.50.

The scarcity of water has meant it has quadrupled in price in many areas CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

Horariby and her children have a choice: they either trudge 12 kilometres on foot to collect water from the nearest large town, or buy it at twice the price from a cattle drawn cart that comes to her village, piled high with yellow jerry cans.

“First prices doubled and then they doubled again,” Horariby explains, perched on a plain sisal mat inside her sparse home on the outskirts of Marofoty.

The World Health Organization says a person needs a minimum of 20 litres of water a day; but to buy that much for her family of six could eat up as much as 40 per cent of Horariby’s monthly income.

The practically dry Manambovo river. Holes are dug so that people can bathe and extract waterCREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

“Water is so expensive, sometimes we just go without,” she says, shrugging wearily. “It feels helpless, on those days I don’t really know what to say to my children.” The escalating cost of water is just one example of the crisis facing roughly three million people living in Le Grand Sud, a vast, hard-to-reach region in the grips of the most intense drought in the country for more than four decades.

The scenery in this part of Madagascar is a far-cry from the lush jungle depicted in the DreamWorks animation. Once major rivers are now little more than channels of sand, snaking through a semi-arid landscape where few plants bar prickly cactus can thrive.

Deforestation has triggered extensive soil degradation across the south of the country CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

Everywhere locals speak of the kéré – or hunger – as the crops they rely on wither in the dry, dusty soil.

According to the United Nations the situation is at risk of spiralling into the “first climate change famine on earth”. Already roughly 1.3 million people are experiencing severe food insecurity – including 500,000 children – as the drought has decimated the harvests that they rely on for both their food and income.

In the remote, sand-strewn village of Befamata, Sagina’s rouge-stained fingertips are a mark of the measures locals have taken to survive. The grandmother is now almost entirely reliant on raketa mena, or red cactus – a slightly sweet, prickly fruit that her family forage alongside any edible green leaves they can get their hands on.

“When the rain was still falling we didn’t really need the cactus fruit,” Sagina says. “Now nothing else will grow. So what else do you want us to eat?”

Hunger has never been far away in Le Grand Sud, one of the poorest and least developed parts of Madagascar. But while the area has always been prone to drought, the scale and severity of the current crisis is “unprecedented”, says Dr Soja Lahimaro, the governor of Androy region.

“I don’t want to scaremonger, but the situation is going from bad to worse,” he warns. “The cactus are supposed to be the last resort. I was born and raised here, and I’ve never before seen people eating the leaves of the cactus, or people so reliant on its fruits. It’s very alarming.”

The professor-turned-politician, who spent eight years studying and teaching in China and the Netherlands, says the situation demonstrates the harsh reality of life on the front line of global warming. “The climate change effect, in my opinion, is no longer a myth,” he says. “It’s normal, it’s real.”

Grandmother Sagina is now almost entirely reliant on red cactus for food CREDIT: Simon Townsley

Madagascar, an island responsible for only 0.01 per cent of global CO2 emissions, is consistently ranked as one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change. Aridity is increasing, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), while droughts are projected to become more frequent as temperatures continue to rise.

Dr Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California, says global warming has made droughts caused by natural climate fluctuations far more extreme. Shifting sea surface temperatures have directed more rainfall towards South Africa, rather than southern Madagascar, while “exceptionally warm” air temperatures have dried out vegetation, deepening the drought.

Dr Soja Lahimaro, the governor of Androy region, says the scale and severity of the current crisis is unprecedented CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

“If you look over the last six years, there’s really been an exceptional set of back-to-back droughts in southern Madagascar,” Dr Funk says. Bar 2018-2019, rainfall levels between November and February have been “well below” average – falling from 750mm in 2014-2015 to around 400mm in the last two years. “That has had really devastating compound effects on poor households,” he says.

The drop in rainfall has also hit groundwater levels, adds Alfred Ralaimboa Solofoniaina, a water and sanitation project manager at Medair Madagascar, a humanitarian NGO. People have to dig deeper and deeper to access water lurking in the aquifers beneath the sandy riverbeds, while many wells and some boreholes are drying up. But other factors have contributed to the complex situation, especially deforestation: 90 per cent of Madagascar’s original rainforests have been lost to logging, charcoal production or slash-and-burn agriculture, where trees and vegetation are burned to clear land for planting. This has triggered extensive soil degradation across the south of the country. Mahatratse, a member of an agricultural cooperative near the hard-hit town of Amboasary, says that just 400 of the 1,400 hectares of land farmed by the group remains fertile.

“My advice to my grandchildren? Move north,” he says, smiling as he shrugs. “We used to grow cassava, corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes. This year we’ve just managed some sweet potatoes, but the yield has been very low.”

The rise of the tio-mena, or red wind, hasn’t helped. The vicious sandstorms, which coat everything in a layer of ochre dust, smother most seeds and saplings that do germinate.

Bushfires, some set deliberately, accelerate the deforestation in the Grand Sud region CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

“This is something that’s more and more serious,” says Dr Lahimaro. “The sandstorms are one of the things that’s killing us slowly, they’re destroying the soil… and it’s really a new phenomenon.”

The region is caught in a vicious cycle. As crop yields fall, so do incomes CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

But the region is caught in a vicious cycle. As crop yields fall, so do incomes – pushing more and more people to collect firewood or make charcoal to sell at the markets, where they can buy (increasingly expensive) rice or corn transported here from other regions of Madagascar. Slash-and-burn has also ramped up in Le Grand Sud, as the misconception that burning areas of soil or vegetation will make the land more fertile is widespread. “The issues of this region are too big to be swallowed in a single bite, but I could say that the very main root of evil is environmental degradation,” says Dr Lahimaro. “We cut down forests without thinking about our tomorrow.” Yet deforestation and global warming are unfolding against a backdrop of decades of underdevelopment, corruption and the economic fallout from Covid-19 restrictions, which has left people here with no safety net in the face of repeated and severe climate shocks.

The region is cut off from much of the country and job opportunities are limited CREDIT: Simon Townsley/The Telegraph

Just reaching the deep south is a challenge. Driving from the capital, Antananarivo, to Ambovombe (the largest city in Androy) is a 1,000km, three-day trip in a 4x4 – much of it along unpaved, pot-hole ridden roads that would take a truck packed with supplies much longer to cross.

This means the region is cut off from much of the country and job opportunities are limited. Most people survive on subsistence farming and fishing – two livelihoods hit hard by the current drought – while access to education and healthcare is patchy.

The consequences of poverty are all too apparent in the overcrowded prison in central Ambovombe. Penned in by burgundy walls topped with barbed wire, 378 people (the vast majority yet to be sentenced) are held in a complex built to house just 99.