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Climate Famine In Southern Madagascar

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Nick Breeze

Climate journalist and host of Shaping The Future podcast.

World Food Programme | Shelley Thakral

“…a crisis that should not happen!” Menghestab Haile, Regional Director, World Food Programme

In this special episode of Shaping The Future, I am   speaking with Regional Director for the World Food Programme in Southern Africa, Menghestab Haile

In particular, we are discussing the climate-driven drought in southern Madagascar that has over 1 million people on the brink of starvation, including many children in a state of malnutrition.

The situation is a dire emergency and very much deserves our attention because the drought that is causing the famine is caused directly by emissions from those of us in developed countries. 

However, there is a direct link to the previous episode in this series with Alice Hill discussing the need for adaptation and readiness for climate extremes. 

As Menghestab points out, southern Madagascar is in a period of transition, and given the right support they can continue to grow crops here and adapt to new emergent conditions.

I initially contacted the WFP to do this interview to highlight the humanitarian emergency, however, it has been striking that this is what a real-time climate red alert really looks like. 

This is a region where many people live by subsistence farming and, no matter the outcome of climate conferences, adaptation is critical. 

As Menghestab says: 

What we have on the ground is a really difficult situation for the people of southern Madagascar. This is the result of several years of repetitive drought and also lack of infrastructure and also adaptive activities, so at the moment, as you see, people are really suffering and there is nothing that they can do at the moment.

NB: One of the big issues here is that the drought has dried the soil and the crops have failed. The next planting season for agriculture is fast approaching and the World Food Programme, working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is working to find a solution.

What is also very alarming and what makes us want to see what we can do is that in 2-2.5 months time they have to start their season of agriculture, where they have to work on the ground, get their seeds and work on their agriculture.

So while they are going through the problem now, we also need to plan and find a way of getting people on the ground to prepare for next year.

NB: What is the quality of the soils that they are planting into?

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MH: The soil is not bad soil. I think the problem now is that we need to adapt. They are used to planting maize and that kind of crops. The land with the current climate, maize will not survive. 

They need to move to the appropriate crops, appropriate interventions and this really worries us because if next year is dry, what kind of seeds are we going to use?

So currently as we speak, I have a team in Southern Madagascar working with the FAO teams to look at what kind of seeds we are going to distribute for the coming season. 

So we are looking at climate-resilient crops and also diversifying into what else we can do in a dry land like this. We have a lot of experience from the Sahel and Northern Africa so first of all, we are really sharing experiences and working together to help them to live and adapt to the current situation.

It is a huge country and the population is not that crowded. People could survive only if they can adapt to the climate challenge.

NB: So this is the problem, it is moving from one climate state to a much drier climate state and it is helping people get through this transition. Is this correct?

MH: Absolutely correct and in fact, before I came to this part of the world I was country director of the WFP in Egypt and I have seen what we can do in South Sinai, Sahel, and those areas, where it is much drier than where we are.

If you dig for water here you will find sat 15-20metres you will have water. In Egypt, we were digging 300metres down. So it is a question of bringing in technology and appropriate crops and putting it all together with infrastructure as well.

NB: So this means these people don’t necessarily have to move if we can do this in time. 

When I looked at your website there is a lot of people who are really suffering today. Time is very important in terms of getting food into the area in the short term to deal with the crisis while also dealing with the transition which is going on over a longer period of time. How is that working at the moment, are you getting enough food to the people there who are suffering?

MH: You have captured it very well in what needs to be done. Definitely, we need to reach the people with the food. It is why I highlighted why we are providing them with the food and the seeds and the tools that they need to prepare for the next season.

In fact, that is why I went back with the director of emergencies so that we can plan together while addressing the current situation, how can we also work with other partners, such as the FAO and others, to being the necessary resilient interventions in the short-term and looking at the relevant longer-term plan.

In fact, I have a critical team that is planning to distribute seeds but when you distribute the seed, they may eat the seeds if you don’t give them food at the same time.

So we are doing sophisticated planning to see how we can distribute seeds but also give them food that they need so that they see can be put in place.

We are also looking at putting in place more than the required seeds so that if one rain fails, they may need to replant. 

So we are looking at all ways of contingency planning, contingency funding, and so on.

NB: Just going back to the current situation, there is a lady saying that she is living on 14 handfuls of rice per week at the moment. Another family who are really really struggling.

Madagascar, Amboasary district 11 June 2021 In the photo: Children in southern Madagascar. Photo: WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana More than 1.1 million people in southern Madagascar are unable to feed themselves because the country is suffering from its most acute drought in four decades. With drought conditions persisting into 2021 and a poor last harvest, weary communities have few resources to fall back on. Unexpected sandstorms have buried croplands and pastures, undermining any possibility of securing a source of food. Vast swathes of arable land have been transformed into wasteland.

It comes back to this fingerprint of climate change and how it is starting to impact quite specific regions and yet the cause of it comes back to the more developed countries who have these higher emissions.

We are going towards COP26, and I know the WFP will be present at the UN climate conference. What is your main thrust in terms of message, considering this is just one crisis among many that the WFP is working with?

MH: From where I am, this is a crisis that should not happen. It will happen but we can live with it, for the time being at least, if we put in place appropriate adaptive interventions.

It is dry but it gets 300mm and if you use it properly, it is not that small. The climate for the people who live there has completely changed, the season has changed, and they don’t know why it is changing. For them, it is a real crisis for the people on the ground.

We have a similar problem now, not in terms of the human impact yet, but in terms of the drought in southern Angola where, in fact, I am going there the day after tomorrow to see what else we can do.

So, I think in places like this where there is no problem of insecurity but you have people are starving who should not be starving in our time. 

Of course, I will advocate for all the hard work to reduce climate change and emissions. My Ph.D. Is in climate science since the ’90s so this is an area intellectually I am very involved with but I look at it from the people’s point of view on the ground. 

They don’t understand whether it is COP26 or what the issue is. All they know is that it is not raining and it is unpredictable. So how do we help them? This is what keeps me awake during the night.

NB: From the climate perspective, it does illustrate that when it comes to the biosphere and the changing climate we are all responsible in a way and we do have to help people in other regions where we can.

Especially when the story is that there is an opportunity to help a transition and to help these people become resilient. It is very heartening to hear this as well.

MH: Another point I want to add here is that I have come from Egypt after 7 years as country director. When you look at southern Madagascar, and you compare it will south Sinai where it is dry and a desert. Then you have the Sahel Shelf and all that is happening there, so in the end, it is an issue of development. 

How do we support these people to transit and make use of the resources that are available in an appropriate way? There is so much cactus in this part of the world but it is not being appropriately used. 

Whereas if you go to Mexico, if you go to Morocco or Tunisia, how cactus is used for animal feed, and for diversification of livelihoods is great.

But of course, we need resources and we need support in order to help them because this cannot be done overnight. It needs adaptation!

NB: I sincerely hope that you get all the support you need because this issue does not get enough air time. Hopefully, I will see you or your colleagues at the COP. It has been great to speak to you.

MH: Thank you for your support. 

Please do consider supporting the World Food Programme in Madagascar.

Photo Credits:

WFP – Tsiory Andriantsoarana

WFP – Shelley Thakral

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