World’s First 'Climate Change Famine' Devastates Madagascar

UN says 28,000 people could soon experience famine caused by climate change.

woman with basket on head in Madagascar

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Madagascar is famous for its fine vanilla beans, which are meticulously pollinated by hand in the humid, hilly forests of the country’s northeast quadrant. While the flavors of northern Madagascar are sweet, however, current events in southern Madagascar are unpalatably bitter, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and its sister agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which for months have been sounding an urgent alarm on behalf of the east African nation.

Since at least last fall, WFP and FAO report, communities in southern Madagascar have been suffering from “catastrophic” levels of hunger and food insecurity that are a direct result of climate change. If conditions don’t improve soon, they warn, the Malagasy people will become casualties of what the BBC has called the world’s first “climate change famine.”

At the center of the situation is Madagascar’s worst drought in four decades, which has made more than 1.14 million people food-insecure. As of June, WFP estimated that at least 14,000 of those people had reached famine-level hunger, as measured by the five-phase Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system, an international standard for measuring acute food insecurity. Those people have reached IPC Phase 5—as extreme as it gets—which is described as “an extreme lack of food and/or other basic needs even after full employment of coping strategies,” the consequence of which is “starvation, death, destitution, and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels.”

“There have been back-to-back droughts in Madagascar which have pushed communities right to the very edge of starvation,” WFP executive director David Beasley said in a statement in June. “Families are suffering and people are already dying from severe hunger. This is not because of war or conflict, this is because of climate change. This is an area of the world that has contributed nothing to climate change, but now, they’re the ones paying the highest price.”

Conditions are about to get even worse, as Madagascar is preparing to enter its annual “lean season,” a time of year from roughly October to March when food is most scarce. By the start of the lean season in October, WFP expects the number of Malagasy people experiencing IPC Phase 5 hunger to have doubled to 28,000.

Especially hard-hit are children, according to WFP, which says children with acute malnutrition are four times more likely to die compared to healthy children. It reports that the rate of global acute malnutrition (GAM)—a common measure of a population’s nutritional status—has reached 16.5% among children under 5 in Madagascar. And in one particularly devastated district, the district of Ambovombe, GAM rates have reached 27%. Anything over 15% is considered “very high.”

“This is enough to bring even the most hardened humanitarian to tears,” Beasley continued. “Families have been living on raw red cactus fruits, wild leaves, and locusts for months now. We can’t turn our backs on the people living here while the drought threatens thousands of innocent lives. Now is the time to stand up, act, and keep supporting the Malagasy government to hold back the tide of climate change and save lives.”

WFP says semi-arid conditions, combined with high levels of soil erosion, deforestation, and severe sandstorms, have covered cropland and pasture with sand. In speaking with scientists, the BBC confirmed that such conditions are directly linked to climate change.

“Madagascar has observed an increase in aridity. And that is expected to increase if climate change continues,” Rondo Barimalala, a Malagasy scientist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, told the BBC. “In many ways, this can be seen as a very powerful argument for people to change their ways.”

WFP has been assisting up to 750,000 people in Madagascar with food and cash distributions each month. To continue doing so through the next lean season, it says it needs $78.6 million.

“The scale of the catastrophe is beyond belief. If we don’t reverse this crisis, if we don’t get food to the people in the south of Madagascar, families will starve and lives will be lost,” WFP senior director of operations Amer Daoudi said in a statement last spring. “We have witnessed heartbreaking scenes of severely malnourished children and starving families. We need the money and resources now to help the people of Madagascar.”

View Article Sources
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  2. "Global Report on Food Crises- 2021." United Nations World Food Programme, 2021.

  3. "Southern Madagascar on Brink of Famine, Warns WFP." World Food Program USA, 2021.

  4. "Acute Malnutrition Threshold." United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

  5. "The Invisible Crisis: WFP Chief Appeals for the World Not to Look Away as Families Starve in Madagascar." United Nations World Food Programme, 2021.