Madagascar, victim of climate change or bad political choices?

Madagascar, victim of climate change or bad political choices?

Residents of the Amboasary Atsimo region in southern Madagascar are at high risk of suffering severe food insecurity.

In 2021, the island of Madagascar found itself on the list of world hunger hotspots. More than a million of its inhabitants have suffered from severe food insecurity due to the drought. A situation caused by climate change, but not only… On this World Humanitarian Aid Day, zoom in on a region of the world that really needs it.

The south of Madagascar is an extremely dry region, explains Xavier Poncin, deputy director of Action Against Hunger (ACF) for the Madagascar region.

Drought episodes that lead to food insecurity situations, it's something that's been around for as long as documentation of the area has existed, he notes. The first episodes of kéré, as they are called in the national dialect, are already documented a hundred years ago.

However, he notes, these episodes are becoming more and more frequent. They no longer occur every 15 to 20 years, as in the past, but rather every 5 years.

However, 90% of the inhabitants of the Deep South survive thanks to agriculture . Without rain, plants wither, animals die and people have nothing to eat.

Last year, the country found itself on the list of global hunger hotspots – compiled by the World Food Program – as 1.14 million of its inhabitants suffered from severe food insecurity and 14,000 #x27;among them starvation conditions.

In addition to the drought, some areas were hit by sandstorms, while others endured locust invasions .

Cyclone Batsirai swept across Madagascar in February, causing around 10 deaths and extensive damage.

The southeast of the island also suffered considerable damage following the passage of six storms and cyclones during the first months of the year 2022.

While the situation has improved somewhat improved in recent months, in particular thanks to humanitarian aid, 122,000 people are still in crisis.

“There are no more pockets of people at risk of starvation, but it is still an emergency level.

— Xavier Poncin, Deputy Director of Action Against Hunger for the Madagascar region

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Over the next few months, about 400,000 people in the region could see their situation deteriorate due to the lack of rain, according to the analysis of the Integrated Classification Framework of the Food Security (IPC).

Residents of the districts of Bekily, Atsimo-Andrefana and Amboasary-Atsimo could end up in phase 4, i.e. they would suffer from very high acute malnutrition.

Visiting the region in July 2021, the head of the World Food Program (WFP), David Beasley, said that the famine in the Great South of Madagascar, which is experiencing its worst drought in over 40 years, was the first caused by human-induced climate change rather than conflict.

A way to call on the leaders of Western countries to increase their aid for the island, which is suffering the consequences of climate change even though it has not contributed to it.

According to these scientists, natural climate variability and poverty are the main factors. It is difficult for local communities to cope with any prolonged drought, especially when subsistence agriculture and pastoralism depend exclusively on rain, notes the WWA study.

Children suffering from malnutrition are treated at the Doctors Without Borders mobile clinic in the village of Befeno, in the commune of Marovato, on September 2, 2021.

Some 90% of Malagasy people live with less than $2 a day. The maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world. Half of children under 5 are chronically malnourished and access to clean water is one of the worst in Africa.

Poverty levels are even higher in the South, a region that also suffers from geographic isolation from the rest of the country, lack of road infrastructure and banditry.

“These are the factors that put these regions on the edge. They are resistant when the environmental conditions are good, but very vulnerable to the slightest shock and in particular to insufficient rainfall. »

— Xavier Poncin, deputy director of Action Against Hunger for the Madagascar region. visiting research assistant at the University of Maryland.

The Deep South is definitely a tough place to farm, notes Rice. It is exceptionally dry and the dry spells are getting longer and more frequent.

That said, for centuries, the population knew how to manage, in particular thanks to a variety of cactus which grew there in abundance. In addition to being used for the construction of fences around the hamlets, they allowed to feed and quench the animals and the villagers during periods of drought or between two harvests.

Malagasy people eat cactus fruit (raketa in Malagasy) during times of scarcity .

In the 1920s, however, French colonizers introduced an insect, the cochineal, which ravaged cacti. Their goal was to reclaim the land occupied by the cacti for farming, says Rice. But following the near disappearance of the plant, the first major famine settled in the region. The food system never recovered.

Until they removed the plant, there wasn't really any insecurity food in the South, argues Mr. Rice.

Only 5% of Madagascar's land is suitable for agriculture. However, the development strategies proposed by major international institutions such as the World Bank promote large-scale export-oriented agriculture. Cash crops, such as vanilla, cloves or castor oil, are encouraged, even if this does not meet local needs and the profits go to large companies established abroad.

Rather than investing in a local food system, international donors are seeking to ensure that some of the 70% of Malagasy people who still live from agriculture become salaried workers for large farmers, observes the researcher. This should lead to rural exodus, industrialization and economic take-off. These are the same prescriptions that the World Trade Organization and the World Bank made in the 1980s, notes Mr. Rice.

According to him, before turning to the cash crops, Madagascar should aim for food self-sufficiency.

“Madagascar's limited arable land should be reserved for food crops consumed domestically, not for exports that add flavor to Western foods or lucrative concessions to foreign companies.

— Stian Rice, geographer, visiting research assistant at the University of Maryland

Humanitarian organizations are trying to support Malagasy people to overcome their dependence on foreign aid. Beyond an emergency response during disasters, their objective is to enable the inhabitants of the Great South to no longer suffer from food insecurity in the future, explains Xavier Poncin, from Action against Hunger.

National road 13, in the south of Madagascar, is a good illustration of the poor state of the roads in the Great South of Madagascar, a major obstacle to the development of the region.

This requires the repair of roads as well as the construction of dams and irrigation canals. Humanitarian organizations also provide seeds or agricultural tools to replace those that farmers had to sell to buy food during the crisis.

In parallel, other programs focus on drilling new water points and monitoring groundwater tables.

In the longer term, the response requires a transition to agriculture that is more resilient to climate change.

In southern regions, 90% of the population depends on agriculture or livestock for their survival, notes Xavier Poncin. The whole point is to make these economic activities less dependent on the climate.

Without denying the impact of global warming, we must go beyond the discourse that presents Madagascar as a victim of climate change, stresses Stian Rice.

“To emphasize only that is to minimize a failure long-term political, social and foreign policy.

—Stian Rice, geographer, visiting research assistant at the University of Maryland.

In 2020-2021, Canada gave $21.06 million to finance various programs in Madagascar.

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