Children sit by a dug out water hole in a dry river bed in the remote village of Fenoarivo, Madagascar

Climate change is driving the worst drought Madagascar has seen in four decades

Shelley Thakral, communications and advocacy specialist with the World Food Program, joined The World’s host Marco Werman from Johannesburg, South Africa, to discuss the dire situation.

The World

The island nation of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean continues to suffer from its worst drought in four decades.

The lack of rain in southern Madagascar has led to crop failure and mass hunger, all said to be driven by climate change. The UN’s World Food Program says that more than a million people don’t have enough food, and tens of thousands are on the brink of starvation.

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A joint statement released on Monday by UNICEF and the World Food Program warned that in its next assessment there, “at least half a million children under the age of five are expected to be acutely malnourished, including 110,000 in severe condition, in drought-affected southern Madagascar, suffering irreversible damage to their growth and development.”

Related: Iran’s ‘system is essentially water bankrupt,’ says environmental expert

Shelley Thakral, communications and advocacy specialist with the World Food Program, joined The World’s host Marco Werman from Johannesburg, South Africa, to discuss the dire situation.

Marco Werman: Last week, you wrapped up a monthlong trip to the most impacted regions of Madagascar. Tell us what you saw.
Shelley Thakral: It’s incredible. Logistically, quite a treacherous journey to even get to the south. I started my journey on a Sunday and I actually reached the south four days later. These are roads that are fairly impassable, sort of imagine driving over rocks for seven to eight hours. Then, I’m driving across bridges. Normally, you would see flowing rivers, gushing streams. This is cracked sand earth. Gusts of winds, almost Sahelian-type sandstorms that are sweeping across land which you’d normally be cultivating for rice or maize; it’s just cracked and empty.
What were people actually eating then when you were there?
Apart from the rations that we give them, often they’re just foraging, eating whatever they can find — that is plants, that is leaves, that is this red cactus fruit. It’s what we call survival coping mechanisms. There’s a word in Malagasy which means “empty stomach.” Children who we met at some of the treatment centers for severe acute malnutrition, children who you would look at and you would think they were tiny toddlers, but they are probably 5 or 6 years old because poor nourishment, underdevelopment, obviously, affects a child’s growth.When you sit in the centers, it’s just silence, you know. There’s no energy for children to laugh, to speak. I met one brother and sister whose mother was in the field. I asked both the little boy and the little girl, his sister, what their names were. They barely could lift their eyes to look at me. And it was so sad to see tiny, tiny children whose childhood has just been almost stolen from them.
The root causes of food insecurity can be pretty complex, often political, economic and climatic factors. But the World Food Program has stated that in the case of Madagascar, climate change is the No. 1 driving force. Explain that. Why is that believed to be so?
In southern Madagascar, it’s absolutely apparent because of no rain. And whenever it does rain, it’s never enough rain. It’s not the right sort of rain. Sandstorms have swept across and destroyed the land where you would normally be harvesting. This community of people, 1.3 million people who are food insecure, they’ve done nothing to contribute to climate change. They don’t burn fossil fuels, and yet, they are living on the front line of what is a deteriorating situation.
So, what kind of solutions is the World Food Program proposing in the short and long term? And where is the government of Madagascar in all of this?
So, we are working closely with the government of Madagascar, and they will probably say the same as well, that its resources, its attention, its awareness. The World Food Program, we’ve been asking for $78.6 million to help get people out of this desperate situation. We are looking at other ways where we can help farmers who’ve lost their land to work in other means or give micro-insurance or give some assistance.
We first looked into the famine in southern Madagascar in March, when the alarms were first sounding. Has the situation plateaued since then, or is it still getting worse?
It’s getting worse, Marco, because it’s not getting better. So, we are still really worried that the numbers will increase. And as we look now to the next harvest season, what we need to do is to be able to provide emergency food assistance. We’re in humanitarian mode. We’re in emergency mode right now, since last September, since March of this year. I predict a rather sad prediction that even in a month’s time, we still may be saying the same thing, worryingly, if we don’t get the money that we desperately need.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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