Last Friday Stéphane Dujarric, the top spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, took time from his daily noon press briefing to steer reporters’ attention toward a food-security disaster in the making in Madagascar.
“We, along with our partners on the ground, are gravely concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Grand Sud,” Dujarric said, referring to the southern provinces of the island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa. “A devastating combination of a severe drought, the worst in 40 years, sandstorms, and pest infestations have led to crop losses of up to 60 percent.” He added that the UN has appealed for $75 million to deliver immediate emergency food aid to 1.14 million people who, it fears, are on the cusp of famine. “$75 million is not a lot of money in the scope of things,” he said, noting how desperate families have been reduced to hunting locusts or scavenging for cactus fruits and leaves.
UN food agencies recently highlighted how food insecurity is often driven by armed strife, citing as examples conflicts in Burkina Faso, South Sudan, and elsewhere. But officials are drawing a direct link between rising food insecurity in Madagascar and global warming. Many in the press are echoing this, going so far as to declare the looming famine in Madagascar as the first ever to be caused entirely by climate change. This isn’t completely accurate. A deeper look at how Madagascar got here reveals a crisis resulting from the cumulative effects of deforestation, soil degradation, underinvestment in agricultural innovation, and climate change.
Madagascar, famous for lemurs and for being one of the last places on Earth settled by humans (initially from Indonesia, not Africa), has suffered a succession of droughts, especially in the south, dating back to at least 2015. “Over the past six years, southern Madagascar has experienced five below-average rainy seasons,” according to Reliefweb. “The past two consecutive below-average seasons have led to a severe reduction in staple food production and declined livestock herd size and body condition.” Agriculture there is dominated by smallholder farmers and constitutes a huge portion of Madagascar’s economy. It commands 71% of that nation’s land area, according to the CIA World Factbook. Rice and maize dominate, but other staple crops include cereals, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beans. Irrigation is fairly prevalent in many areas, but fertilizer use is rare throughout the country, according to a 2009 national report by Madagascar’s Ministry of Agriculture. The farms now suffering in the south are heavily reliant on rain. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization estimates that some 1.14 million people in the southern provinces, or 43% of the population there, are facing acute worst food shortages, and FAO expects this to rise to 1.31 million people, or half the population, by October if conditions don’t improve. The weather isn’t likely to turn favorable for southern Madagascar’s farmers anytime soon, FAO warns. “The next agricultural season in southern regions is expected to begin in October 2021, and early weather forecasts indicate a higher-than-normal likelihood of below-average rainfall during the first three months.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that rising average global temperatures will lead to longer and harder droughts of the sort southern Madagascar is now experiencing. Scientists say that they can attribute specific weather phenomena like this drought to record concentrations of human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But other researchers have been warning for years that Madagascar is making itself increasingly susceptible to dry spells due to massive, unregulated deforestation. Indeed, in ecological circles, Madagascar is infamous for deforestation and the threat agriculture poses to biodiversity there. The country used to be richly forested, but today estimates suggest only 21% forest cover remains, mainly in the highlands near the island’s center. Forest cover helps induce rainfall and removing it tends to make conditions drier and leads to dry soil conditions. Over-cultivation of crops is further degrading these soils, worsening erosion, and compounding farmers’ woes. The deforestation there grew so severe in 2015 that NASA felt compelled to highlight the issue in a press release, declaring “the island of Madagascar is on fire,” not from wildfires but by farmers (https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/the-island-of-madagascar-is-on-fire). “Madagascar is beginning to feel the consequences of unsustainable agricultural processes,” wrote Megan Clark in the Global Majority E-Journal back in 2012. “It is clear that unless Madagascar promotes sustainable agriculture, its land will be negatively impacted and hurt long-run agricultural production.” Agriculture there may now be stuck in a feedback loop: as dry conditions worsen, farmers fell more trees in a bid to expand the area under cultivation, further degrading land (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320717317111).
Whereas Madagascar has seen too much deforestation, it has also seen too little investment in agricultural innovation, including research directed at more climate-resilient farming practices. The International Food Policy Research Institute expressed concern about Madagascar’s underinvestment in agricultural research and development in a 2013 fact sheet, noting an acute decline in agricultural R&D spending beginning in 2008. “Spending just 0.16% of agricultural GDP on agricultural R&D in 2011, Madagascar’s agricultural research intensity ratio is one of the lowest in Africa,” IFPRI reported. Ten years later, the situation remains much the same.
Climate change will be with us for some time, but there are things governments and farmers can do to better prepare for more severe droughts to come. Many research teams are investigating and investing in drought-resilient crop varieties or even alternative crops that do better in drier climate conditions. Others are advocating sustainable farming practices like no-till agriculture or intercropping as means to prevent soil erosion and retain soil moisture. Innovations in smallholder farm irrigation are being explored, along with alternative and affordable fertilizer solutions.
Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases continue to rise. Average annual global temperatures are expected to rise with them. IPCC warns that this will lead to severe flooding in some areas, but also severe drought conditions in others, threatening farming and food security. But in the face of these inevitabilities land use, land conversion (i.e., deforestation), and agricultural practices matter. Meanwhile, Madagascar needs immediate assistance to forestall a potential food security disaster. “Funding is urgently needed to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe as we approach the October to April lean season,” said UN spokesperson Dujarric. — Grow Further
Photo credit: Food aid distribution in response to the drought in southern Madagascar. Kalu Institute, Creative Commons.
— Grow Further