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Devastating Drought Has 200,000 People in Madagascar on the Brink of Starvation

A drought that began in October 2014 has led to widespread crop failure in southern Madagascar, leaving thousands — including 40,000 children — experiencing severe food shortages.

by Matthieu Jublin
Apr 9 2015, 12:15am

Photo via RIJASOLO/AFP/Getty Images

Widespread crop failure caused by an ongoing drought in southern Madagascar has left as many as 200,000 people — including 40,000 children — on the brink of starvation, according to the World Food Program (WFP).

The UN's food assistance branch first identified "an acute food crisis" in Madagascar in March, and the situation has reportedly worsened in the weeks since. Hunger is a recurring issue in the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. The country is prone to cyclones, flooding, and other natural disasters, and a lack of rain in late 2014 and early 2015 led to the current crisis.

A tropical storm that made landfall in the island's north in March caused heavy rains and flooding that killed dozens of people and displaced thousands. The country's south has remained dry, however, with the drought that began in October 2014 devastating crops.

WFP representatives in Madagascar told VICE News that the lack of rainfall has continued in April. Food insecurity is not uncommon in the south, but Volana Rarivoson, a WFP spokeswoman in the capital Antananarivo, told VICE News the current crisis is "more severe" than in previous years.

"Before the crisis, 13 percent of the population was eating just one meal a day," Enrique Alvarez, WFP coordinator in the southern Androy region, told French daily Le Monde. "Since January, this number has risen to 47 percent and the situation is only going to get worse."

Alvarez said the WFP had "dispensed over 2,000 tons of food to nearly 80,000 people" in the south of the island, where people are running out of emergency supplies.

Related: Madagascar's electricity shortage is causing riots and crippling the country's economy

"Families have run out of food reserves" to survive the difficult period between seeding and harvest, Rarivoson said, explaining that "people tried to re-plant, with no success" due to the drought.

Christiane Rakotamalala, deputy director of the Malagasy branch of GRET, a French development NGO, agreed that the crisis was "much more severe" this year. Rakotamalala told VICE News that people were "selling their livestock at a very low price, while the price of food, which is harder to come by every day, is skyrocketing."

Olivier Benquet, program director for the Madagascar branch of the NGO Action Against Hunger, told VICE News that in the southern district of Betioky, patient admissions in health centers that specialize in the treatment of acute malnutrition has more than doubled since 2014.

According to Willem Van Milinck and Nora Hobbes, the WFP representatives in Madagascar, a recent survey showed a "growing malnutrition problem" in children younger than five.

The WFP said local authorities registered at least 16 hunger-related deaths of children in December 2014 at the start of the food crisis.

"Every year, children bear the brunt of the food crises," Rakotamalala said, alluding to the drought of 2007, when "15 to 16 percent of children displayed signs of acute malnutrition."

While seasonal droughts are to blame for the persistent food insecurity in southern Madagascar, the state's "inadequate" resources mean the situation is unlikely to improve in the coming years, Rakotamalala said.

GRET and other local and international aid organizations are leading the food assistance effort on the ground, encouraging farmers to adapt to the ongoing drought problem by replacing water-thirsty crops with lima beans and other legumes that are rich in nutrients and require less water.

One of the world's poorest countries, Madagascar is also in the midst of an ongoing political upheaval that began with the ousting of President Marc Ravalomanana in 2009.

Two weeks ago, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina used the country's food shortage to justify banning an opposition protest in Antananarivo, declaring, "Now is not the time to cause trouble."

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin