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Madagascar faces devastating drought

August 11, 2021

The African island nation is facing its worst drought in 40 years. It has left hundreds of thousands of people fighting for survival as the crisis becomes more dire by the day. 

A child carrying a toddler along a dusty road in Madagascar
Young children are among those most affected by the drought in MadagascarImage: Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP/dpa/picture alliance

It has not rained in Madagascar for months and parasites have affected staple crops, leading to rising food prices and leaving families with nothing to eat

In its latest Hunger Hotspots report for 2021, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says acute food insecurity in southern Madagascar "is expected to push 14,000 people into catastrophic acute food insecurity by September 22." It warns that this number is expected to double by the end of the year, with 28,000 people requiring urgent action to prevent widespread death and starvation.

But support has been slow in coming, suggesting that Madagascar may be facing a crisis that is largely out of the public eye. 

Starving to death

In Berary, the far south of Madagascar, district head Metairie Rabefamory told German broadcaster ARD that he had seen how "five children and three women died,” stressing that "they starved to death."

It has not rained in this remote part of the country for three years. The villagers' fields have have turned to dust, and they have not been able to harvest anything this year. 

Sinzay, a mother of eight children, survived thanks to a food delivery. "We were really helpless and like skeletons. We couldn't even walk anymore. We would have broken down if we had just tripped over a branch," she told ARD.

"My children are crying. They cry so much, deep down, with all their might. One has already passed out from crying so much.”

Children sit on the ground while a man measures the circumference of a girl's arm
The paper strip shows red, meaning that the girl's arm is dangerously thin for her ageImage: Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP/dpa/picture alliance

Sinzay's family has no food, and no safe home or clean clothes. Her son Havanay said they eat wild roots: "But we cannot cook them. We put them in the pot, cover them with water, but they remain raw. The roots are always hard. We eat them, but they don't fill us up."

The desperation of eating anything to survive has left him with stomach cramps and diarrhea. "When I go to the bathroom, my stool is yellow and sometimes bloody.

"I would like a blanket, clothes and sandals. But above all, I want to eat something," Havanay said. 

COVID-19 worsens crisis

Many aid organizations have reported on the devastation of the drought on families who hardly have anything to eat. 

Ricardo Fernandez, head of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Madagascar, told ARD that the work of the international humanitarian medical group has become difficult. 

"A major factor that makes malnutrition worse is unemployment. In addition, people no longer have any food, they cannot harvest; there is no work, no income. COVID-19 also complicates the situation because the pandemic hinders mobility and the distribution of goods," Fernandez said. 

Other aid organizations report similar stories. They say people in their desperation are resorting to eating cockroaches, clay mixed with leaves, or even leather.  

One woman, Florentine, was forced to cook leather for a meal. "We'll eat it right away because we're so hungry," she said.

Florentine is a climate refugee from the very south who made her way inland. But she said things are no better there.

Lack of access to affected regions 

The crisis in Madagascar is compounded by a lack of access to areas worst hit by drought. Rough roads in remote regions require days for the transport of relief supplies.

Lova Hasinirina Ranoromaro, the head the office of the president, told ARD that the government wants to build roads and a pipeline to provide clean water to people. 

"President [Andry] Rajoelina [...] really wants these projects to have a real impact on people within 18 months," Ranoromaro said.

For some, this may not come quickly enough. The WFP has warned that acute food insecurity has reached critical levels in the districts of Ambovombe, Ampanihy Ouest, Beloha and Tsihombe. At least 55% of people living there are in urgent need of action to protect livelihoods, reduce food shortages and save lives.

Madagascar's cycle of droughts