In southern Madagascar, cactus soup is the only meal

Hunger is often driven by conflict like in northern Ethiopia and Yemen. But thats not the case in southern Madagascar, an island east of Africa. There, the United Nations points to climate change as the main cause of food shortage.

The little Tema Nomesoa is seventeen months old but does not crawl or walk. A nurse weighs her: 5.2 kilos. His 20-year-old mother ate mostly cactus fruits in recent years. โ€œGrowth retardation is already beginning in the womb,โ€ says obstetrician Ravoniarisoa. โ€œCactus fruits are not nutritious, there is no protein or good fats in it.โ€

Malnutrition was never completely gone in Madagascar, but is now increasing rapidly. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) fears half a million children will be malnourished by April next year.

More than a million people in the remote south of the country suffer from food shortages, WFP spokesman Shelley Thakral says via Zoom. And 18,000 are in what they call the โ€œcatastrophic phase,โ€ where people have nothing left to eat. โ€œPeople who dont play a role in climate change are now victims.โ€

Africa correspondent Elles van Gelder made this production together with Gaรซlle Borgia, a local journalist in Madagascar. Madagascar does not allow international travellers, so deCCeit made this report remotely in collaboration with a local team.

One of them is 70-year-old farmer Claire. She walks through the cactus fields with her daughter and four grandchildren. Grabbing her petite old fingers among the spines. Shes looking for a kind of resin that comes out of the plant. The dried juice cooks them together with a local potato. They cant find a lot else. Its their only meal of the day.

She looks at her grandchildren. โ€œThey lost their souls. They dont have any more energy. I wish I had a bottle of milk for the kids.โ€ Claire has only received food help once, she says. She also has to grubbing it herself. Her field is dry, she hasnt been able to grow anything. The United Nations calls it the worst drought in forty years. Not only is there no rain, there are also dust storms that blow away fertile soil.

Double drought bad luck

Climate scientist Rondrotiana Barimalala from Madagascar says it has been getting drier in her country over the last twenty years. She co-wrote an alarming report by the UN Climate Panel (IPPC) that came out last month, on the speed with which climate changes. For the south there is double bad luck, because that region is already dealing with natural drought, as a result of the El Niรฑo, she says, a natural phenomenon in which the seawater along the equator in the eastern Pacific heats up sharply, affecting the rain.

Farmer Claire is of a generation that has experienced dry times before. But this time its going to be longer, she says. Moreover, she has little other means to save herself. She sold her cattle to buy food. And food prices on the island have risen.

Madagascar is also facing an economic crisis. There is no international air traffic to keep corona out. That costs the island a lot of tourists and therefore they do not receive much needed foreign currency.

Survival of Cactus Leaves

In addition, hunger is set in a region where there is little infrastructure. โ€œThere has been little to no development here when you look at water management and irrigation,โ€ says the local journalist Gaรซlle Borgia who went out for this story for deCCeit. โ€œThis is a very remote part of the country. Many of the people feel forgotten by the authorities far away in the capital. There are even people who dont even know what the presidents name is, this part of the country is so isolated.โ€

Borgia met people who survive from cactus resin and cactus leaves. โ€œThat is usually only given to the cattle. Others eat cactus fruits, but they are not enough. And they eat roots of local plants and insects. Usually there is rice on the menu, but thats very expensive now.โ€

According to her, the aid is getting started, reaching more and more people. The World Food Programme says it needs $108 million to help people until April next year. The government also promises better: more aid and infrastructure projects. But the latter needs time, if it already happens. Meanwhile, the next harvest is not expected until next year, provided rain falls.