Madagascar is on the brink of a famine it played little part in creating

  • Among the many parts of the world experiencing extremes of weather is Madagascar, ITV News Correspondent John Ray reports

Words by Lenka Blanárová, a Senior Nutrition Assessment Coordinator at Action Against Hunger UK.

Ms Blanárová has recently returned to the UK after spending four months in Madagascar, a country in the south of Africa, which is in the midst of back-to-back droughts.

The effects of climate change are ravaging the southern districts of Madagascar, a country that produces just 0.01% of global emissions. And with the country now in the grip of the worst drought in 40 years, the UN is warning that as many as 500,000 are marching towards starvation.

I have just returned to the UK having spent the last four months in Madagascar. Having seen the situation first-hand, the only word I can think of to describe the scale of the crisis is "massive".

I visited communities where entire families were surviving on leaves and met mothers who were mixing tamarind with the ashes from the fire, just to put something in their children’s stomachs. It was a truly harrowing experience.

My work has taken me to humanitarian crises all over the world, from Haiti to Yemen, but I couldn’t help but be shocked by the tragedy engulfing Southern Madagascar. It feels like a forgotten crisis.

The kéré – which roughly translates as famine in Malagasy – has become frequent in the south, especially during prolonged lean seasons, when agricultural production is low due to a lack of rain.

The problem Madagascar is facing today is that the kéré arrived in certain locations as early 2017 and has never left."

Lenka Blanárová describes current scenes in Madagascar

Successive droughts and vicious sandstorms - known as tiomena - have destroyed crops and turned arable land to desert.

When you add to this the impact of Covid-19, which has increased food prices and reduced job opportunities, you have a perfect storm of humanitarian needs that feels like it could tip into catastrophe at any point.

The lack of water was already chronic in the region, but little rainfall and the exhaustion of the water table - the boundary between the unsaturated zone and the saturated zone underground - has made a bad situation worse.

Families have little choice but to consume whatever water they can find, and this has led to a spike in the number of waterborne diseases that our teams are encountering.

Not only do these diseases pose their own health risks to children, they also increase the likelihood of a child becoming malnourished, which remains the biggest killer of children under five, contributing to almost half (45%) of all infant deaths.

Credit: (Stéphane Rakotomalala/Action For Hunger UK)

Despite the best efforts of Action Against Hunger and a handful of other international NGOs, the needs on the ground are growing.

Between October and March, our teams handled 8,727 new admissions of children under five with severe acute malnutrition, 8,582 with moderate acute malnutrition, and 9,611 with other diseases. Since this data was collected, our teams tell me the situation has got worse. It is entirely commendable that global leaders are taking climate change seriously and I hope that COP 26, which will be hosted in Glasgow in November, will see governments go even further.

But for many of the children I met in Madagascar, November will be too late. Madagascar is teetering on the brink of a famine it has played little or no part in creating. It is the victim of decisions made thousands of miles away, in the boardrooms and government offices of the very countries the UN is now calling on to help.

If governments genuinely care about reversing the impact of climate change, then they must stop looking to the future.

Climate change is happening today, and for the children of Madagascar, its consequences are already deadly.