Hope and hunger

Life at a crossroads in Madagascar's arid south.

Madagascar hunger
Children show signs of malnutrition in Erada village in Beagnatara commune, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
Children show signs of malnutrition in Erada village in Beagnatara commune, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Androy Region, Madagascar - Sambo recounted the story of an elderly woman who collapsed while searching for wild tuber in the fields surrounding the village of Berenty in Madagascar’s sprawling 111 square-kilometre Grand Sud.

Her death was just one scene of desperation that has defined the last year for the village chief.

About 30 people living in the community of about 630 died during that period, he said, which represented, at least to date, the nadir of the worst drought the region had seen in the last 40 years.

“If it weren't for the nuns in Amboasary to help them, I can’t imagine the next episode,” he said, referring to aid workers in the closest town, a rugged 45-minute drive away along uneven cactus-lined hills. “If the WFP [World Food Programme] didn’t come earlier, I couldn’t imagine.”

An influx of aid brought a measure of stability to the Grand Sud, where a paltry harvest in May of 2021 left 1.6 million people on the edge of hunger, with 30,000 facing immediate life-threatening conditions and humanitarian officials warning of "catastrophe".

At the time, the WFP warned the situation could become the world's first famine powered not by conflict, but instead the first "climate change famine".

Madagascar Hunger
Sambo, the chief of Berenty village in Androy region, said the crops for the year had been destroyed by Cyclone Emnati, which tore through the area in February [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

The outlook is slightly better this year, but with this season’s rainfall still expected to be below average - the sixth year of similar conditions of the last seven for the beleaguered inhabitants - any upcoming reprieve is feared to be short lived.

For Sambo, it is difficult to consider what comes next.

His hope for the coming months had been planted as seeds sown in the ground in Berenty village. He longed for the crop yields from the upcoming harvest - which will be completed in May - to lead the residents out of the suffering of recent months and the near-total reliance on humanitarian aid.

But when the rains finally did come, they brought hope to some and destruction to others.

"The famine should have been fought, the rain has fallen," he said, referring to Cyclone Emnati, which tore through the region in late February.


"Unfortunately, all our crops have been decimated by the waters," he said, holding his Panama hat in one hand and pointing to a field of caked soil. "And the sun is starting to rise up again, so the suffering is starting over."

Anything approaching more long-term solutions remains beyond the horizon in the Grand Sud, which includes particularly arid stretches in Androy, Anosy and Atsimo-Andrefana regions.

Climate scientists warn that rising temperatures will continue to worsen cycles of food insecurity and hunger in southern Madagascar, which accompany periods of drought projected to become more severe.

The emergency of recent months has also shed light on the more provincial underpinnings of the insecurity, in what international observers have described as a "crisis of development" and human rights grown out of years of negligence. More than two-thirds of Madagascans live in poverty, with the rate at about 90 percent in the south.

Madagascar hunger
Berenty village resident 50-year-old Selambo says she often forages for food or begs when aid is not enough [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

In Berenty, sitting in the doorway of her sparse wood-framed home, 50-year-old Selambo, a mother of four, knows all too well the reality of existence at the crossroads of forces far beyond her control.

Selambo said her adult children are married and have moved on; she has no husband or crops, "not even a chicken".

Weakness from undernourishment has left her unable to work as a sisal cutter, a job that involves shoring off thousands of fibrous leaves used to make ropes and mats. She relies on humanitarian handouts, but sometimes begs for corn at the local market.

When the begging is unsuccessful, she scrounges for leaves to eat.

"My future?" she said, grimacing and touching her stomach. "I am hungry."

Hunger's daily search

Madagascar hunger
A road leaving Ambovombe, the capital of Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
A road leaving Ambovombe, the capital of Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Two realities have emerged in the constellation of villages that stretch across Madagascar’s southernmost region, Androy. Its capital, Ambovombe, is a four-hour drive from the nearest commercial airport along a dissolving national highway, cratered and dotted with stalled vehicles.

From a bird’s eye view, the emergency response by the international humanitarian community in recent months has helped to avert immediate wide-scale disaster for the population, whose dispersal across the vast, red sand-swept land makes aid delivery particularly challenging, Pasqualina Disirio, the WFP's country coordinator, told Al Jazeera.

"I think we, as an international community, also the national authorities, we can be proud that we averted the worst-case scenario that was the famine in the south," she said, noting that aid intervention had pulled back from the brink about 30,000 people facing the highest level of hunger, Phase 5, or Famine, on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. About 1.14 million people remain acutely food insecure.

Madagascar Hunger
Vilisoa brought her six-month-old son, Manda, to Ambovombe hospital where he is being treated for complications from acute malnutrition [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Hope that the conditions are on a slow, but steady upswing opens the door to a shift in attention to more resilient solutions, including programmes to support means to earn money beyond agriculture, as well as adapted farming techniques and seeds, she added.

But for many, the despair that has loomed over recent times remains. Survival is a daily question.

In a paediatric ward in a hospital tucked behind the dust-kicked markets of Ambovombe, Vola Voatsasie sat with her seven-month-old daughter, Georgia. Flies danced across the infant's face.

The mother walked six hours to the facility from her home in Tsirangote village.

"She was vomiting and had diarrhoea," she said of her daughter, who lay swaddled on a mat on the floor. "I was very worried. I couldn’t do anything."

Born into hunger, Georgia, like the other 14 infants being treated at the hospital for complications from severe acute malnutrition, required long-term care, building back strength through regular feedings of therapeutic milk.

The mother and daughter are not alone. About 309,000 children in the Grand Sud are expected to suffer acute malnutrition from November 2021 through August 2022, with 60,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition - which can be life threatening - expected.


Meanwhile, the United States government-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS), has warned that after May's harvest, emergency levels of hunger could return to the region as soon as June.

It projects that the worst-hit areas could see "only marginal seasonal improvements" after crops are reaped, which are likely to be "offset by reductions in humanitarian assistance" during the period, with the patchwork of aid provided by NGOs either not fully funded or set to reduce in the coming months.

Menacing the outlook of the region, which already faces staple food prices as high as three times their average, is a looming global food crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has led humanitarian agencies, notably the WFP, to cut deliveries in some countries.

Madagascar Hunger
A nurse tracks the progress of five-month old Berto, who is suffering from complications from acute malnutrition, in Ambovombe’s hospital in Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Across the concrete floor in the hospital in Ambovombe, 27-year-old Vilisoa from the village of Ambolomareagne holds her son Manda, who was also vomiting, suffering from diarrhoea, and general listlessness, when a doctor visiting the village offered to drive her to the facility.

"He was very annoyed and he couldn’t even breastfeed," she said of her six month old.

Meanwhile, her other five children will wait for her return to help them find food. Her 11-year-old son will forage in the fields surrounding their village, searching for roots to sell to buy food for his siblings.

"I have no husband," she said. "If we find, we will eat, if we don’t, we will sleep without eating."

Repeated 'shocks' of climate change

Madagascar Hunger
Tsimotso, 14, stands next to a sorghum crop in Ehavo village, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera English]
Tsimotso, 14, stands next to a sorghum crop in Ehavo village, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera English]

An hour and a half drive away, in the village of Ehavo, hidden in a spiny forest of octopus trees, 14-year-old Tsimotso is starting to think of the future. He wants to be a doctor, and although he has not regularly been to school in years, he says maybe one day he will travel to Ambovombe to study.

"I want to help because we are so many. So we have sick people," he said. "I would like to be the only one who takes care of them."

Last year at this time, his field was nearly barren "because the rain didn't fall", he said, standing in a cluster of sorghum stalks almost as tall as his five-foot frame, tucked in a forest that has been saved from the ravages of deforestation that has left much of the region subject to regular, plant-ravaging dust storms.

With little from the harvest last year, he and his nine siblings spent the following months searching for edible roots and tubers, pushing ever deeper into the depleted woods; sometimes returning with nothing.

While they searched, nearly 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) away, world leaders gathered in Glasgow, Scotland to pledge plans to avert global temperatures from a cataclysmic rise of over two degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Madagascar hunger
Teachers say attendance at a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) supported school in Ehavo village, in Androy region plunged during the worst of the hunger last year [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

There, Madagascar's then-minister of environment, Baomiavotse Vahinala Raharinirina, told the Guardian newspaper her country was paying for cheap European flights and gas appliances, a nod to what many call the climate injustice the country experiences. Despite meagre carbon emissions, the population bears the brunt of extreme weather fuelled by human-caused rising temperatures.

President Andry Rajoelina, meanwhile, decried: "My countrymen are paying the price for a climate crisis that they did not create."

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that with a 1.5 degree celsius increase from pre-industrial levels, droughts in Madagascar will worsen. The panel has already recorded higher levels of aridity amid rising temperatures in the Grand Sud.

The World Weather Attribution network, a reputed network of climate scientists that has pioneered ways to speedily link extreme weather events to climate change, has said increased cyclonic rains that battered the country's eastern coast this year were also magnified by climate change.

Madagascar hunger
Fourteen-year-old Manampe said his family moved to the town of Amboasary to beg for food during the worst of the crisis last year [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Chris Funk, the director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, told Al Jazeera that evidence shows the current regularity of dry seasons in southern Madagascar is unlike anything the region has seen in the last 40 years, a period for which the best data exists.

The little rain has been accompanied by a stretch of particularly warm temperatures, which can lead to a "vapour deficit", which further dries out already parched vegetation.

Data suggests that rising ocean temperatures are affecting extreme events like El Nino, La Nina and the Indian Ocean Dipole off the waters off Madagascar, likely creating severe "climate volatility", Funk added, although he said more research is needed in that area.

"We can look back about 40 years and this is certainly an unprecedented frequency of dry seasons in that historical record," said Funk, whose work focuses on developing better early warning detection.

"And what is extremely dangerous from a food security framework is that we have these repeated shocks that are much more dangerous and damaging than when you just have one bad drought [year]," he said. "Many households have some reserves, they have some coping mechanisms, but when you get [several years] in a row of drought conditions, then those resources are really depleted."

However, a study released in December by the WWA network challenged that climate change was at the root of the most recent crisis.

Madagascar hunger
A mother shows her son’s stomach, distended from malnutrition, in Erada village in Beagnatara commune [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

The report, produced by scientists in South Africa, Madagascar, New Zealand, India, the Netherlands, France, the US and the UK, said Madagascar's regular weather variability, coupled with poverty, poor infrastructure, a dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and COVID restrictions that limited migratory work, were more to blame.

Some, including Funk, who reviewed the report before its release, have questioned the methodology the WWA network used to reach that conclusion.

However, the findings point to a common refrain among those familiar with the region: while rising global temperatures are a real threat, the poverty and vulnerability of the people in the south have a much more localised provenance.

'A crisis of infrastructure'

Madagascar Hunger
Sija, 59, and her grandson walk to get water nearly 8km from the village of Ambory, Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
Sija, 59, and her grandson walk to get water nearly 8km from the village of Ambory, Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

The uneven plains of Androy region give way to the Indian Ocean along Madagascar's undeveloped southernmost coast.

In the village of Ambory, with her 10 children, their children, and in some cases their children's children, 59-year-old matriarch Sija distills their most pressing need into one word: "water".

"We dwell salted water near the sea. It is very salted, undrinkable," she said. "That is how we are, we have no water."

Her outlook for the year is not good, like in Berenty, she said their corn crops were destroyed by the cyclone. Without more rains, she expected small yields.

Madagascar hunger
Residents collect water from a natural well near Ambory village in Erada commune [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera English]

Children will continue to forage for unripe cactus fruit or leaves to eat in the months ahead, she predicted, as she journeyed to the coastal water point - an 8km (five-mile) sun-scorched walk.

The water collected is better suited for zebu - the country's prized cattle - but Sija said it suffices when survival is at stake.

"We will resign ourselves to waiting for God and His will," she said.

Access to water - for agriculture, livestock, and survival - remains the most fundamental infrastructure challenge in the region, according to Marie-Chantal Uwanyiligira, the World Bank country manager for Madagascar.

In areas of the Grand Sud where rain does fall more regularly, it either returns to the ocean or evaporates with the sun, she said, noting there has not been a major overhaul to water management systems at least since colonial rule ended in 1960.

Madagascar hunger
Sija says access to water is the biggest challenge in Ambory village, Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

"Southern Madagascar, in my view, is a development crisis that has been in the making for many, many years," she told Al Jazeera. "It's a region that has been left behind by all means - in terms of infrastructure, in terms of education, in terms of the presence of the state.

"We had done a study … the country and environmental assessment in 2012, and at that time, we had anticipated that if nothing is done, the region will be subject to severe issues in terms of climate change,” she said.

"So, in other words, this is really something that could have been prevented if there was really attention to the region."

Madagascar Hunger
A woman holds a spade and seeds she received at a government aid distribution event in Maroalomainte commune, Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

French colonists were met with fierce local resistance when they conquered Androy region at the beginning of the 20th century. They reportedly treated the people living there, the so-called Tandroy or Antandroy tribe, which translates to "people of the thorn", with apathy or cruelty.

In one particularly grim chapter, French officials introduced cochineal insects to destroy the hearty prickly pear fruit-bearing cactus the local population of the south relied upon to survive in the unforgiving terrain.

Some scholars have linked the move to a larger attempt to force the population to relocate and join the colonial workforce, resulting in the so-called "killing famine" of 1930 to 1931, in which as many as 30,000 people died.

General disinterest towards the unforgiving reaches of the south continued after Malagasy independence in 1960, with successive administrations ignoring the region, according to Solofo Randrianja, an historical studies professor and political scientist at the University of Toamasina.

Madagascar Hunger
Boys walk along a road in Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Any development initiatives often languished or fell into disrepair, fuelled in no small part by corruption, allegations of which have, and continue to, dog the central government based 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) north in Antananarivo.

Among officials, the south earned a nickname: "Le cimetière des projets" or "the cemetery of projects".

The current government led by Rajoelina, who as mayor of Antananarivo spearheaded a 2009 military-backed coup and led a transitional council before winning the election in 2018, has more recently promised a dramatic shift towards the south. It announced in July of 2021 the most ambitious raft of projects for the region to date, including building new water pipelines, restoring roads, launching new malnutrition and employment centres and developing a "green belt" of new vegetation to help protect against desertification.

Major questions surround the projects, including their long-term viability and whether their funding - said to be a combination of public funds and donations - is realistic in a country emerging from years of political and economic crisis.

Madagascar Hunger
Residents of Androy region gather for a government aid distribution event in Maroalomainte commune [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Meanwhile, the plans risk being undermined by corruption. There is a history of funds earmarked for Madagascar’s regions being taken by elites in the capital, political analyst Juvence Ramasy told Al Jazeera.

He called the president’s focus on the south “a way to get more attention, more aid and more money for the country”.

“But then I don't think the money will all go to the south and that's the biggest problem,” he said.

At an aid distribution event in March in the commune of Maroalomainte, Madagascar’s then-minister of water, sanitation, and hygiene, Ladislas Adrien Rakotondrazaka, declined to comment on how past administrations had approached the south, but was adamant the government was changing tack.

"The difficulty [in the region] is getting harder due to the climate change," he said, surrounded by hundreds of villagers who had gathered to receive handouts of seeds, spades and in some cases, pesticides.

He said the government's plans include building 700 water points in areas where water can be pulled from the ground.

Madagascar Hunger
A man wears a shirt in support of Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina at an aid distribution event in Maraoalomainte commune [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

An existing water pipeline, completed with UNICEF in 2019, is in the process of being extended to reach 45,000 more people, he added. Meanwhile, construction on one of three more planned pipelines will begin in the coming months, he said, although he did not have a projected date of completion.

"Let me insist to the point that this is the result of the decision of the president of the republic, Andry Rajoelina, that we will do everything to change the region of Androy in [terms of] lack of water," said Rakotondrazaka, who was replaced in the latest government reshuffle shortly after speaking to Al Jazeera.

For her part, the World Bank’s Uwanyiligira said she would like to see the government streamline the pledges to assure they are seen through, but hopes the promises, along with continued international support, can be built upon to “shift the paradigm of change in the south … from humanitarian crisis to resilience and eventually to development."

Structural inequality and 'severe consequences'

Madagascar Hunger
Sailambo, 35, oversees a project to help collect rainwater and prevent soil erosion in Erada village in Beagnatara commune, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]
Sailambo, 35, oversees a project to help collect rainwater and prevent soil erosion in Erada village in Beagnatara commune, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Baby acacia trees sprout from a field of crescent-shaped ditches in the village of Erada in the commune of Beagnatara, a two-hour drive from 35-year-old Sailambo's current home in Ambovombe.

In a white Nike T-shirt with her one-year-old son Israel on her hip, she surveys the field, putting twigs around the fragile plants, instructing village residents to do the same.

"We women, we know what is hurting us and even what hurts men, especially our kids and our families," said Sailambo. "We have this natural way to care and we have the natural motivation to do anything."

In Erada, Sailambo's ancestral village, she is overseeing a project brainstormed by her nephew Yves, a high school student in Ambovombe, and supported by MADLab, a "think, do" lab based in the southeastern port city of Fort Dauphin. The initiative seeks to restore moisture to the soil, with the earthen cavities capturing water and the trees, when grown, helping to keep the water in the ground and prevent erosion.

Madagascar hunger
Sailambo instructs residents of Erada village in Beagnatara commune, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

With more women leading locally in social and development programmes, she said, "I think that there won’t be this famine ... I make an effort to be an independent woman, to not be dependent on men."

Indeed women - and children - have borne the brunt of recent hardships, with men often leaving villages to find work, or otherwise absent.

It is one instance of a structural inequality laid bare by drought, according to Sabine Lauber, a senior human rights adviser to the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator for Madagascar. Any solution to those inequalities will involve both governmental change and societal reform.

"Suddenly, we're finding climate change interacting with what I would call harmful cultural practices, which are not allowing women to assert their basic human rights," Lauber told Al Jazeera.

Women in the south are often restricted by local social norms that prevent them from making decisions regarding property, receiving inheritances, or entering leadership roles.

Madagascar Hunger
A traditional grave in Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

Local customs that see men withhold their wealth - usually represented in the zebu they own - for elaborate funeral celebrations and feasts have been the subject of particular criticism.

Meanwhile, the people of the south have been denied their right to governance and development, Lauber said.

"When [structural inequalities] reach the level that they've reached in the south of Madagascar, you have very severe consequences like people dying of malnutrition, increasing criminal activity, increases in insecurity of the person, violence against individuals," she said.

In a particularly worrying trend, the UN has highlighted a spate of recent attacks and abductions of people with albinism, whose bones, used in good fortune rituals, are sold for high value on the black market.

Risks of child trafficking increase amid insecurity, with Madagascar already known for high rates of exploitation.

Meanwhile, acts of mob justice, a byproduct of a weak regional penal system that often mixes with traditional justice meted out by local chiefs, have become common.

Ageing infrastructure in prisons has left inmates particularly vulnerable. "I understand that around 30 prisoners died last year in the south from malnutrition and dehydration-related illnesses,” Lauber said.

"If we are going to find sustainable solutions in the long term," she added, "we have to address the root causes, which include quite a significant lack of ability for people to assert their rights."

Madagascar hunger
An acacia tree grows in Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

In Erada, Sailambo said she hopes she can inspire women to take a bigger role in more home-grown solutions.

Like most things in the region, the challenges facing the project she is overseeing are myriad. The current scope - three fields - is just a drop in a dry bucket. But she is resolute.

"In 10 years, we hope to eradicate the problem of water in the village," she said.

Meanwhile, residents bring their children to her, pulling up their clothes to show stomachs bulging from undernourishment.

Wrappers of Plumpy-Nut, a peanut-based paste administered by aid groups to combat acute malnutrition, litter the ground. Even with humanitarian deliveries, villagers say they can go three days without eating.

Madagascar Hunger
Four-year-old Volahengoe and 3-year-old Sambelahatse are seen in Erada village in Beagnatara commune, Androy region, Madagascar [Joseph Stepansky/Al Jazeera]

"Today, they are resigning themselves to the malnourishment, insufficiency," Sailambo said.

Still, it remains uncommon for people to leave their homes behind in search of better conditions in the north.

They cling to a memory of a few years ago, she said, when the earth could produce enough for them to get by.

"They have the hope that that time will be back again," she said. "They hope that there will be culture and crops."

Damy Govina contributed reporting.

Source: Al Jazeera