The crisis follows three straight years of drought as well as a deep recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
People in southern Madagascar have been reduced to eating wild leaves and locusts to stave off starvation after consecutive drought and sandstorms ruined harvests, leaving hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).
Amer Daoudi, senior director of global WFP operations, warned on Friday the lives of Malagasy children are in danger, especially those under five years old whose malnutrition rates have reached “alarming levels”.
Speaking by videolink from Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo, Daoudi told a UN briefing in Geneva he had visited villages where “people have had to resort to desperate survival measures, such as eating locusts, raw red cactus fruits or wild leaves”.
“Famine looms in southern Madagascar as communities witness an almost total disappearance of food sources which has created a full-blown nutrition emergency,” Daoudi said.
“I witnessed … horrific images of starving children, malnourished, and not only the children – mothers, parents and the population in villages we visited,” said Daoudi, a veteran aid worker.
“They are on the periphery of famine; these are images I haven’t seen for quite some time across the globe.”
Madagascar is one of Africa’s poorest countries. A lack of basic services – from health and education to employment opportunities – as well as poverty and climate change have exposed many of its 26 million people to natural disasters.
The WFP said the harvest was expected to be nearly 40 percent below the five-year average.
Malnutrition among children under five has almost doubled to 16 percent from nine percent in the four months to March 2021 following five consecutive years of drought, exacerbated this year by sandstorms and late rains. A rate of 15 percent is deemed emergency level and some districts are reporting 27 percent – or one in four children under five – are suffering from acute malnutrition that causes wasting.
At least 1.35 million people need food assistance in the region, but the WFP is only reaching 750,000 with “half-rations” due to financial constraints, according to WFP, which seeks $75m to cover emergency needs through September.
“We need resources, yesterday; we need to turn resources into food,” Shelley Thakral, spokesperson for the WFP, told Al Jazeera.
“The world is absolutely suffering from COVID, but I think the domino effect in Madagascar, where sandstorms have completely blanketed harvest, they have not had a decent rainfall in years and this will have a massive effect in 2021 on children, on mothers and on families.”
“We have seen images of skin-to-bone, protruding ribs of small children – children who, if you looked at them you’d think that they were perhaps two, three years old and not perhaps 10 years old … It’s really worrying,” Thakral said, warning that “people are on the edge”.
“They’re foraging, eating … just whatever they can find,” she added. “The situation is incredibly desperate.”