Famine-struck Madagascar, castaway in the storm of climate inaction

Posted on 08 August 2021

By Nanie Ratsifandrihamanana, WWF-Madagascar CEO

Parched lands and rare spiny thickets stretching for miles as gusts of red wind or 'tiomenas' blow. The dry storms cover all the eye can see in dust - a word that does little justice to the muddy film that used to once be the precious topsoil that nourished maize fields in southern Madagascar. 

The sandstorms, coupled with drastically decreased rainfall over the last three years, have wiped out any hope for a harvest. Climate change is real to the people of this region. Hotter, drier days are eroding soil, making it harder to grow crops. Wherever you cast your gaze, you see the hunger looming - in the rice paddies turned to wastelands, the smothered cattle and cacti and heartbreakingly in the anxious eyes of parents looking to feed their families. Many are resorting to eating insects, as well as a mixture of clay and tamarind juice, to simply stay alive. And as the humanitarian crisis deepens, so too does the impact on biodiversity in the region. 

WWF-Madagascar has observed nutritional deficiency in ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) individuals in the neighbouring Atsimo-Andrefana region, due to the lack of food and the scarcity of water. Waves of climate refugees, fleeing the drought-hit South, have no choice but to slash and burn natural forests in the protected areas further north or to settle along the western coast to live off illegal fishing. Nature, more than ever, is proving to be the only safety net for these people in a time of crisis. 

In 21 years, this is at least the fourth famine and drought our country is facing, as we are caught in the eye of the storm unleashed by climate change, and a drastic lack of climate action.

Rising atmospheric temperatures combined with rising and warming seas threaten our island country, our people and our unique biodiversity. 30 years ago, droughts were a once in a lifetime phenomenon, but today it has become a part of our lives. In the already semi-arid southern region of the island, the average temperature is predicted to increase by 2.5°C - 3.5°C by 2100 without a sharp decline in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Even as some of us in the South grapple with stifling heat, the water that normally heals and rejuvenates comes with its own perils. Rising ocean temperatures have brought about more severe cyclones resulting in flooding further north in the country, as well as more frequent El Niño cycles, which extend periods of drought and the deadly tiomena sandstorms. And in this perfect storm, not even the sea is spared. Southern Madagascar partly hosts the world’s third-largest coral reef system, which is under threat from rising mean sea temperatures bleaching the coral. 

As a developing island country, we have known hardship and hunger before. But we have also known resilience. But this time, it  is not only poverty or political crises that are inflicting this pain on us and our children. It is also, and to a large extent, human-induced climate change. And that is unacceptable.

To know that we are in this situation because of the world's inability to adequately address the climate crisis -  and because, for years, the Malagasy government has failed to adequately plan and prepare for climate change impacts - fills me with pain and anger. The world must wake up to the dangers of ‘business as usual’. Drought and famine in Madagascar, floods in Germany and China, wildfires in the Americas, Turkey, Greece and Italy - so many lives, communities and natural habitats destroyed. It doesn't have to be this way. We have an opportunity now to seize the moment as countries are submitting their revised national climate plans and targets, covering the next decade, to the UN by November. These must be inline with 1.5°C.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said recently that “limiting global temperature rise is a matter of survival for climate vulnerable countries.” Advances in science have enabled us to have a far better understanding of the attribution of extreme weather events to climate change. This is expected to be one of the key messages from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science, due for release on 9 August.

In Andranovory, one commune that has been relatively spared from the drought, water is already being sold in a 20-litre can for Ariary 800 (21 US cents). 75% of Madagascar’s population live with less than two dollars a day. To many in the South, cultivating crops seems a farfetched fantasy. People are feeling as though they are running out of time, and choices; but we are not. We can still determine what the future holds, if we act today.

We need to address the world's climate crisis, first reducing fossil fuels and switching to renewable energy, fixing the food system, and protecting and restoring nature which we all depend on. The challenges of global warming and nature loss are linked - and so are their solutions. Alongside the transformation in our energy, land, urban and industrial systems, nature-based solutions can play a key role in addressing these two crises of climate and nature. If we nourish nature, we can nourish people. The time to act on the climate crisis is now. 

Baobab trees in the allée des baobabs (alley of baobabs) in Madagascar. The country's South is ravaged by drought and sandstorms and its iconic "Tree of Life" is dying because of habitat destruction and climate change.
© Justin Jin / WWF France