Madagascar in the grip of a ‘catastrophic’ hunger crisis says World Food Programme

Acute malnutrition among children under five has almost doubled over the last four months. Credit: WFP

“I rely on God. Today we have absolutely nothing to eat except cactus leaves that we are trying to clean up. We have nothing left”, a distraught mother-of-three from Amboasary, southern Madagascar, said.

As well as trying to provide for her own children, Bole is also taking care of two orphans after their mother died from hunger.

To survive, they spend every day foraging for cactus leaves to eat.

The situation is the same for roughly 14,000 people in the Amboasary district described as being in a "catastrophe" by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) for the first time.

The WFP said communities are witnessing an almost total disappearance of food sources, adding: “If we don’t act now, the number of people in ‘catastrophe’ will double by October 2021."

Mother-of-three Bole also looks after two children orphaned after their mother died of hunger. Credit: WFP

The famine-like conditions are being driven by severe drought, the organisation said, the only country in the world where the situation has been driven by climate not conflict.

In southern Madagascar, four consecutive years of drought have destroyed crops and increased the number of sandstorms which cover arable ground with sand, making it impossible to grow crops in what has essentially become a wasteland.

Left with nothing to eat and no means to survive, a spike in malnutrition has been recorded in the worst-affected villages.

To cope with extreme hunger, people are eating survival foods like locusts, cactus leaves, and a plant called “faux mimosa” which is usually used to feed cattle.

Tamaria lives with her four children in Fandiova, one of the villages where the situation has worsened the most.

“In the morning, I prepare this plate of insects”, she said.

“I clean them up as best as I can given the near total absence of water.

"It's been eight months that my children and I have been eating this plant every day, exclusively, because we have nothing else to eat and no rain to allow us to harvest what we have sown”, Tamaria added.

Amboasary is considered to be the epicenter of severe food insecurity, but at least 1.14 million people in the Grand Sud need emergency food and nutrition assistance and have been suffering from hunger since last September.

Tamaria resorts to feeding her four children locusts to keep them alive. Credit: WFP

The situation for children has been described as “alarming”.

The WFP says children’s lives are at stake as acute malnutrition among under-fives has almost doubled over the last four months, from 9% to 16%.

The number of children admitted for treatment for severe acute malnutrition in the Grand Sud in the first three months of 2021 was quadruple the five-year average, according to a Ministry of Health Survey, in March 2021.

“Seven times more children are in trouble. Why? Because of drought", David Beasley, WFP Executive Director said.

“We’re facing the worst drought in over 40 years, and this is an area where people depend on their own agriculture; homegrown school meals, smallholder farmers, this is how they live down here but with drought back to back to back, people can’t survive and so the government partnering with WFP and others we’re doing the best we can but it’s a terrible situation”, he added.

Acute malnutrition among under-fives has almost doubled over the last four months. Credit: WFP

Since the start of the 2020 lean season in October, WFP has provided food for around 750,000 people, as well as providing treatment for 43,000 children under five years old in four of the worst affected districts in the south, but it says this is not near enough.

Travel restrictions following the increase of Covid-19 cases in the country have made access to Madagascar, particularly the south near impossible, while bringing in lifesaving cargo (by sea, as most commercial flights are suspended) remains challenging.

This, in addition to poor infrastructure, means the lead time for the delivery of essential food has become longer - up to three to four months.

The WFP has said it urgently needs extra funding of £56.24 million ($78.6 million) over the next six months to provide life-saving food to the most vulnerable people in southern Madagascar, or risk the crisis deepening, with continued poor rains likely to result in a more severe lean season from October 2021 to March 2022.

According to a WFP survey, food production in 2021 is expected to be less than 50% of the last five-year average, another bitter blow for families on the brink of survival.