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Famine in Madagascar: How is climate-change connected to food shortage?7 min read

September 20, 2021 5 min read


Famine in Madagascar: How is climate-change connected to food shortage?7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

What appeared to be a catastrophic situation in July, has turned into a famine and a humanitarian crisis in Madagascar. A drought that has lasted for more than four years has wrecked havoc upon more than 1.1 million people
in the East African island country.

How is food shortage connected to climate-change?

For every 1.8°F increase in world temperature, there will be a subsequent 10% decrease in yields of world’s major grain crops— rice, wheat, soyabean, and corn. Now, if we continue to burn fossil-fuel at the rate that we are at present, global temperature could rise anywhere between 5°-9°F. This could lead to 30%-50% reduction in major crop yield.

But how does this play out? Well, several factors characteristic of climate change have their own role to play in aiding crop shortage. They either effect plant health directly or negatively influence the factors that strengthen them. Here’s a lowdown:

Rising temperature:
Higher temperatures reduce the rate of photosynthesis, decrease soil moisture, leading to increased chances of survival for plant pests.

Increased Carbon Dioxide:
Increased CO2 can aid growth in some plants but experts believe that the net-effect of increased carbon will only harm crop production.

Long duration of hot temperatures:
Increasing duration of hot temperatures will lead to reduced crop production especially if it occurs during initial stages of plant growth like flowering, or grain-filling. Extreme heat also damages plant cells responsible for photosynthesis, and reproduction.

Increase in droughts:
80% of world agriculture is rain-fed, and in the absence of rain, crop yield will suffer immensely. Even the 20% of irrigated crops suffer in the absence of rain as stored water resourced start depleting in the case of continued drought.

Flooding, storms, and rising sea-levels:
Not only droughts, but even floods harm crop production. Heavy rains cause soil erosion. Also, waterlogged soil causes fungus. Even farming operations are slowed down as flooding can harm supplies and machines. Take for instance, the case of Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007. It damaged 1.6 million acre of crop land and around 25% of the rice crop.

Increasing Ozone:
Ozone comes in the way of photosynthesis. This is one of the causes of stunting plant growth. Current ozone levels are already effecting crops like peanuts, potatoes, rice etc.

Weeds, pests, and insects:
Increased levels of CO2 and rising temperatures aid the growth of certain weeds like privet and kudzu. It also helps increase the number of crop pests like aphids and weevils.

So what is happening in Madagascar?

Madagascar that contributes only 0.01% to the world’s annual carbon emissions but is facing one of the most hard hitting consequences of climate change.

It has seen 16 cases of food crises since 1896.

Toharano, mother of 18 children, with two of her children, holds a bowl in the village of Ankilimarovahatsy, Madagascar, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Laetitia Bezain) Image: Al Jazeera

The country has seen no rain in over four years but has seen episodic sandstorms. The sandstorms have left arable lands completely barren. This has led to pervasive crop failure, and an acute shortage of food for the people of the island. The drought conditions have led to an agricultural loss to the tunes of 60%. This is the fourth year where the farmers have seen no harvest. This has forced some people to rely on wild leaves, locusts, cactus fruits, and leather for food.

I chop off the spines with a knife. It’s horrible, it’s bitter and it sticks to the roof of your mouth. Even when you cook it doesn’t taste of anything. It’s making us weaker.

Rahovatae, a resident of Anosy, on eating cactus, Al Jazeera

Madagascar has always been prone to droughts and floods but this time, it has been unprecedented lasting over four years. While 1.1 million are facing some form of food insecurity, 30,000 people in Madagascar are experiencing level five of famine. In July, this number was close to 14,000. And there is always a possibility of this number rising further.

Level five of famine, is the highest internationally recognised level of food insecurity as stated by United Nations World Food Programme (These are the other levels—Level 1: None/Minimal, Level 2: Stressed, Level 3: Crisis, Level 4: Emergency, and Level 5: Famine).

Image: Al Jazeera

This is happening at a time when the world is trying to meet the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030. But recent projections show that this aim is far from reachable despite efforts. COVID-19, and its socio-economic impact, is one of the reasons that vulnerable groups might continue to struggle with hunger.

But COVID-19 is also a product of the changes brought on by environmental degradation.
And so is the climate change that has caused an unprecedented famine in Madagascar.

People in Madagascar rely on land for basic subsistence, and the absence of rain has left their source of resources parched and dry. COVID-19 has also come in the way of the tourism that brought foreign exchange to Madagascar boosting its economy.

Image: Al Jazeera

Famine-stricken areas, like Anosy, are also far from health centres that can provide care for those suffering from malnutrition. Some people are having to travel 10 kilometres to reach a health centre to seek medical help.

According to UN estimates, Madagascar needs USD 78.6 million to meet food demands in the next lean period starting next month.

With excerpts from Aj Jazeera, Al Jazeera, World Food Programme, United Nations, and PSR

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