With more than a million people facing hunger due to the devastating famine currently ravaging southern Madagascar, donors, foreign governments and regional leaders must ramp up aid efforts to avert a potential human rights crisis, said Amnesty International.
As the country experiences its worst drought in 40 years, two United Nations agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) last week issued an urgent warning to draw international attention to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Southern Madagascar.
“The rights of more than a million people are currently threatened in Southern Madagascar, with thousands at risk of starvation and more than a million struggling to access sufficient quantities of food. The situation is dire and there is an immediate need for coordinated regional and global action to help avert what could easily become a human catastrophe,” said Tamara Léger, Amnesty International’s Madagascar Programme Advisor.
“Regional leaders and the international community cannot afford to stand by and watch while people die of hunger in Madagascar. The international community must come together and mobilise resources to help the country in this hour of need.”
The current famine situation became critical in September 2020, at the start of the lean season. The crisis is unfolding after the region has seen three consecutive years of drought, causing the worst drought the country has experienced in 40 years. According to the WFP, around 1.14 million people in the south of Madagascar are facing serious food insecurity, with 14,000 of those in a “catastrophe” situation - the highest in the five-step scale of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). Children and women have been most affected by the drought, and families have been forced into extreme measures to survive, including selling their belongings and engaging in child labour. Children are also missing school due to hunger.
In March, Amnesty International gathered testimonies from women, children and men affected by the drought, highlighting how the situation has negatively impacted on the enjoyment of their human rights to life, access to food, water, health and education, among others.
Dozens of deaths have been recorded in some villages, but there are no precise estimates of famine related deaths. Survivors of hunger have told the organization how they are trying to do everything to avoid dying, including skipping meals and eating cactuses and clay.
Oline Ampisoa, a 63-year-old widow, mother to three and grandmother to nine, said: ‘We used to eat three times a day. We would eat corn, sorghum sweet potatoes, and manioc, but right now, you can hardly find anything. If you are able to earn some money, you can buy manioc and save some, by only eating it for dinner.”
“In the morning and at lunchtime, we either don’t eat anything, or we eat young cactuses. We remove the thorns and then we boil them, and we give that to the children. I even cry when I watch the children eat sometimes, but there’s nothing more I can do,” she added.
The situation is particularly dire for children, for whom the lack of necessary nutrients prevents them from developing properly. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a tool used by governments, UN Agencies, NGOs, and civil society for improving food security analysis and decision-making, approximately 27,100 children required lifesaving treatment for severe malnutrition in 2020, and 135,476 children under five were wasted
Seventeen-year-old Mosa told Amnesty International that he is no longer able to go to school because of the drought: “I don’t go to school at the moment… When I eat tamarind mixed with clay, my stomach hurts, and that’s why I don’t go to school anymore. Because of hunger, when I got to school, I wasn’t at ease, and when the teachers explain the class, my head was always elsewhere,” he said.
Mosa’s story mirrors those of many other children spoken to by Amnesty International, who have been forced to abandon school due to hunger.
The WFP said it urgently needs $USD 74 million over the next six months to offset the impact and the risk of famine in Madagascar, as the 2021 harvest of crops is expected to be less than half the five-year average. The agency also predicted that the lean season is likely to be prolonged and severe, starting in October 2021.
International cooperation and assistance is a key human rights obligation. As per the international standards, states are required to seek international assistance where they cannot meet their human rights obligations. There is also a corresponding obligation on states that are in a position to assist, to provide such assistance. Both donors, and states that receive this assistance must ensure that it is used in a way that is compliant with the principles of non-discrimination and equality.
Average annual rainfall has been declining over the last century in the south of Madagascar, while average temperatures have increased over the past 15 years. Based on projected trends, Madagascar is likely to be more severely affected by drought in the future, with further decreasing rainfall, and a continued increase in temperature.
“As the effects of climate change intensify, the situation in the South of Madagascar will only get worse. The devastation wrought by this famine is yet another reminder to all states, and particularly those most responsible for the climate crisis, about their obligation to protect people by urgently reducing emissions,” said Tamara Léger.
“Wealthier countries must also support effective early-warning systems, disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation strategies to save lives and protect human rights in countries like Madagascar and others facing similar risks.”
Amnesty International will be releasing a report on the drought in Southern Madagascar, and its human rights impact, later this year.