The ground is bone-dry, the shrubs shrivelled, and the fields bare in southern Madagascar as the region endures four years without rain. This is the worst drought in 40 years, and it has left hundreds of thousands of families suffering from acute hunger.
Severe hunger is an annual occurrence here, but the current food crisis has reached levels never experienced before. Experts blame the severity and frequency of droughts in this island country on climate change.
Soavelo*, 27, a single mother of three children - 6, 3 and 1 years old - says she sold coffee and local bread for a living before life became so depressing. She also planted maize and beans in her small field and kept a few chickens she relied on for eggs.
With the prolonged drought, she watched her income dry up. Her customers asked for credit as they could no longer afford to pay cash for the coffee and bread, so she stopped selling. Week by week, she sold her chickens to feed her family until they ran out. She had to start giving her young children one meal a day.
“This is not the first time I am experiencing drought,” says Soavelo sitting on the ground with her three children outside their house in Ranonda, a remote village in southwest Madagascar. “When I was a child, there was a drought, and we often slept hungry, but it was not this severe. Seeing my children so hungry is painful,” she says.
Most residents in the south of Madagascar make a living from small scale agriculture and livestock farming. A combination of successive poor harvests, drought, and the Covid-19 pandemic, has driven up food prices three or four times at the local market, forcing people to sell their surviving livestock and belongings to buy food.
In some areas, families have resorted to eating raw cactus fruits, leaves, termites and locusts. About 1.3 million people are affected by high levels of food insecurity; 730,000 of them are children. In the last three months, an estimated 14,000 people have been suffering from famine. This number is expected to double by the end of 2021 if they do not receive urgent food support.
The UN warns that half a million children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition as the island nation edges towards famine.
Soavelo says she had exhausted all the possibilities of finding food when the emergency assistance from SOS Children’s Villages in Madagascar came to her community in May 2021.
Response to crisis
Soavelo is among 1,600 families in the six most affected communities in the districts of Androy and Atsimo-Andrefana to benefit from the emergency programme by SOS Children’s Villages. The programme targeted households headed by women and those with many children. The families received rice, cereal and beans for over two weeks and were then absorbed into a cash-for-work project.
Five times a week, Soavelo joins a group of men and women to construct a road that joins Ampakabo and Ranonda to Anarabe in Betioky. The workers receive 15,000 Ariary (4 US dollars) per week, the equivalent of 20 cups of rice or 15 kilos of cassava.
“I am a single mother, and I do not rely on anyone to raise my children,” says Soavelo. “Since I have been working on the road construction, my children no longer sleep hungry. I do not worry about food. Before this help came, my children were really suffering. They always told me to go find them food. I felt sad, and sometimes I cried seeing them like that,” she says.
The cash-for-work programme provides short-term employment on labour-intensive projects to unskilled or semi-skilled vulnerable men and women so that they can meet their most urgent needs. The beneficiaries themselves identify activities that will benefit the larger local community.
At the construction site, Soavelo has found an opportunity to revive her business selling cups of coffee and bread, which earns her a little more money.
Without rain, however, Soavelo has no hope for replenishing her depleted food stocks any time soon. When the construction work ends, “I might have to abandon my land and move to nearby towns in search of food. Without farming and seeds for the next planting season, there is little hope here,” she says.
*The name has been changed to protect privacy.
*Text and photos by Sammy Rabenirainy.