Madagascar on brink of 'the 1st famine caused by climate change'

·Senior Editor
·7-min read

After suffering through years of drought that has devastated crop yields, the African island nation of Madagascar is on the cusp of experiencing the first official famine clearly caused by climate change, according to officials with the United Nations.

“The situation is really critical: Around 512,000 people are one step away from famine,” Shada Moghraby, a spokesperson for the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), told Yahoo News. Some families have been left with no alternative but to scavenge for food, including locusts.

People holding locusts.
People in Madagascar have had to eat locusts to survive. (Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP)

“They’re at the highest level of food insecurity,” she said. “They’re at that stage where most of them are surviving on foods such as cactus fruit, which have hardly any nutritional value.”

Staple crops in Madagascar include rice, sugarcane, cassava and sweet potatoes, but five years of drought are taking a heavy toll.

“Every year [Madagascan] families, they’re jumping from one failed harvest to the next,” Moghraby said. “And it’s looking that the coming season as well, it’s going to be another poor harvest. So that is not only just impacting that people cannot grow enough to feed their families, let alone do business.”

A woman cuts cactus with a knife.
Helmine Monique Sija prepares cactus in the town of Behara. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman cooks cactus in a pot over an open flame.
Sija cooks cactus for her family to eat. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)

Madagascar’s current drought is its worst in four decades. But while droughts have always been a threat to the country’s agricultural economy, scientists say that the frequency and severity of droughts there have been increased by climate change. Warmer temperatures, due to greenhouse gas emissions, cause more evaporation, leading to dried-out vegetation and intensified periods of low precipitation.

That’s why the U.N. warned in late October that Madagascar was on the precipice of “what could become the first famine caused by climate change.” The bleak milestone should not be taken to mean that climate change hasn’t factored into previous droughts. And food insecurity has been on the rise for years, driven in part by climate change.

“The number of extreme climate-related disasters, including extreme heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since the early 1990s, with an average of 213 of these events occurring every year during the period of 1990–2016,” the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization reported in 2018. “These disasters harm agricultural productivity of major crops such as wheat, rice and maize causing food price hikes and income losses that reduce people’s access to food.”

A tomato plant burned by the sun.
A tomato plant burned by the sun in Anjahamahavelo, Madagascar, in October. (Alice Rahmoun/WFP)

But full-blown famines are declared only when certain benchmarks are met, including when at least one-fifth of households face extreme food shortages, more than 30 percent of residents are suffering from acute malnutrition and at least one out of every 5,000 people per day are dying of starvation.

“Just because famine is not declared does not mean that people are not dying from starvation,” said Moghraby about Madagascar’s current state. “People may be dying from starvation, but that’s also connected to illness, so it’s not solely by starvation. Obviously, when you’re malnourished, then your chances of being vulnerable to diseases is much higher and therefore you don’t have the energy to fight those diseases. And we see that with the pandemic and COVID-19 putting people at a higher level of vulnerability because they’re food-insecure.”

A worker measures the arm of a young child.
A U.N. World Food Program worker measures the arm of 5-year-old Sambilahatse in Ambiriky, Madagascar, using a test that helps to identify malnutrition. (Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP)

While droughts and other climate-change-related disasters have contributed to previous famines, they typically arise in situations exacerbated by events like civil war or mass displacement.

“Unlike other crises where we have a high level of food insecurity, usually the cause of that is conflict — think about South Sudan or Yemen,” Moghraby said, referring to two other current crises. “But in southern Madagascar, it’s purely climate.”

There are also ongoing food shortages in countries such as Somalia caused partly by droughts, in addition to long-running political conflict.

“With about 2.3 million people already suffering with serious water, food and pasture shortages in Somalia, a rapidly worsening drought could lead to an ‘extreme situation’ by April next year,” the U.N. News agency reported last Friday. “Somalia is on the frontline of climate change and has experienced more than 30 climate-related hazards since 1990, including 12 droughts and 19 floods.”

Khadija Diriye, the Somali minister of humanitarian affairs and disaster management, told the U.N. that families are losing their livestock, which could lead to deadly starvation. “I am particularly worried about children, women, the elderly and disabled people who continue to bear the brunt of Somalia’s humanitarian crisis,” she said.

People gather at holes dug to access water.
People living in and around Tsihombe, Madagascar, gather at holes dug to access water. (Alice Rahmoun/ WFP via AP)

Like most victims of famine and other climate-change-related crises, Madagascans and Somalis are — simply by virtue of being poor — among those who have done the least to cause climate change. Madagascar’s 28 million residents create just 0.01 percent of annual carbon emissions. Collectively, the 48 countries and 1.14 billion residents of sub-Saharan Africa have contributed only 0.55 percent of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. (The United States, with a population of 330 million, has produced 25 percent of historical emissions.)

Right now, the WFP says it needs $69 million to feed the more than 1 million people per month who need assistance in Madagascar. Over the long run, the organization says it wants to better equip farmers in developing nations to be prepared for climate-change-related extreme weather events, for example by having improved irrigation systems that can protect crop yields during droughts.

“These are people who have contributed nothing to climate change but are bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change,” Moghraby noted. That impact is going to grow, in Madagascar and throughout the world.

Update: After the publication of this story, a study released on Dec. 1 by World Weather Attribution, an international research collective, cast doubt on the UN's certainty that the Madagascar famine is purely attributable to climate change. It concluded that, while the droughts in Madagascar were partially "a consequence of climate change, these trends remain overwhelmed by natural variability."

More photos from the crisis in Madagascar

People foraging for water in southern Madagascar.
People forage for water in the Amboasary district in southern Madagascar in June. (Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP)
The hands and legs of an elderly person sitting on the ground.
The elders are among the most affected by the food and nutrition crisis. (Tsiory Andriantsoarana/WFP)
People wait in line.
People wait in line at a Doctors Without Borders mobile clinic in the village of Befeno in September. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
Kazy Zorotane with two of her four children in the village of Atoby, Madagascar.
Kazy Zorotane with two of her four children in the village of Atoby in August. Her two older children had gone into the bush to look for wild tubers for food. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
Jonarson Revoria, a farmer in the village of Ankilidoga, reaches into a small basin dug in the ground to collect rainwater.
Jonarson Revoria, a 73-year-old farmer in the village of Ankilidoga, shows a small basin dug in the ground to collect rainwater. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
Mrs. Behora, about 80, squats in the ground to cook food in a pot at her house in the village of Fenoaivo.
Mrs. Behora, about 80, cooks food at her house in the village of Fenoaivo in August. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
A small girl sits on a scale as a Doctors Without Borders mobile medical team measures her weight in the village of Befeno.
A girl sits on a scale as a Doctors Without Borders mobile medical team measures her weight in the village of Befeno. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
Children carrying sticks in the village of Atoby with their zebus.
Children in the village of Atoby in August with their zebus. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
Children collect watermelon seeds they find on the ground in the village of Sihanamaro.
Children collect watermelon seeds they find on the ground in the village of Sihanamaro. The seeds are roasted and eaten as an appetite suppressant. (Fenoarisoa Ralaiharinony/WFP)
Women with children and babies in line at a Doctors Without Borders mobile medical clinic in the village of Tanarake.
People at a Doctors Without Borders mobile medical clinic in the village of Tanarake in September. (Rijasolo/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman, next to clothes laid out on the ground, does her laundry in a hole dug to access water in the village of Tsihombe.
A woman doing her laundry in a hole dug to access water in the village of Tsihombe. (Alice Rahmoun/ WFP via AP)
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