Famines are complicated things. Amartya Sen’s studies, recognised in his Nobel prize, showed how they are political, to do with distribution as much as food availability. It’s not usually that there isn’t enough food to go around, but that it’s in the wrong places or those who need it can’t afford it. Many famine situations are caused by conflict, due to disruption to planting or harvesting, or farmers displaced from their land. Sometimes crops are destroyed or confiscated and hunger is used as a deliberate tactic.
Climate change is rewriting what we know about famines, and that rewriting is happening in Madagascar right now.
According to the World Food Programme, there are four places in the world that have reached ‘phase 5‘ on the internationally agreed food security scale. At phase 5 a region is in famine, which is defined as “the absolute inaccessibility of food to an entire population or sub-group of a population, potentially causing death in the short term.”
The four places experiencing famine are Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen and Madagascar. The situation in Ethiopia is in Tigray, which I’ve written about as a success story on this blog and is now in the throes of an entirely avoidable emergency. South Sudan and Yemen are both conflict zones. Madagascar is the only place in the world where famine is not being caused by conflict, but by climate change.
The South of Madagascar is arid and its residents are no strangers to hunger. Living mainly on a subsistence basis, communities are used to gaps between harvests where they fall back on wild foods. It’s always been that way, and as long as the rains return and top up the rivers, people know how to live with a challenging landscape. Food security concerns recur in Madagascar on a regular basis, but it has never reached phase 5 before. This is a new level of emergency, enough to shock even experienced aid staff.
This year the rains have not returned as they should, on the back of several dry years already. This prolonged drought has knock-on effects: the dry ground is picked up in dust storms, which choke plants and animals that remain, and blow away the fertility that farmers depend on to plant again when they can. It’s a spiral towards desertification.
As Malagasy journalists such as Gaëlle Borgia or Valisoa Rasolofomboahangy point out, there are other factors in play besides climate change. The south of Madagascar is a challenging place to work at the best of times, and it is notorious in the NGO world as a ‘graveyard of projects’. It is remote and politically marginalised, with more than its fair share of corruption and lawlessness. But it has always been a tough part of the world. It is the effect of climate change on top of everything that pushes the situation towards crisis.
The Washington Post had it right in their recent headline: this is a famine that Madagascar did not create. With a minuscule carbon footprint, the country has contributed almost nothing to the global climate crisis. This is a situation imposed upon Madagascar by others, by the profligate carbon habits of the world’s biggest fossil fuel users.
This is what the injustice of climate change looks like: a million people starving on the other side of the world, while the climate privileged equivocate and delay and wonder if it’s as serious as all that. It’s why climate change is a justice issue, and a racial justice issue. It’s why there must be reparations and compensation. It’s why cutting carbon isn’t about ‘going green’, it’s about saving lives. And being from both Britain and Madagascar, it’s why I write.