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MADAGASCAR: Hunger Stalks Drought-Stricken South

Fanja Saholiarisoa

ANTANANARIVO, Jun 16 2009 (IPS) - The southern part of the island of Madagascar is suffering severe drought and famine. Lack of rainfall during the summer season has destroyed the country’s main harvest in March and April. Half a million Malagasy have little or no access to clean water and food.

Worried mothers are bringing malnourished children to treatment centres for care, but political instability is limiting the assistance available. Credit:  Tomas de Mul/IRIN

Worried mothers are bringing malnourished children to treatment centres for care, but political instability is limiting the assistance available. Credit: Tomas de Mul/IRIN

The World Food Programme (WFP) and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) have started to hand out food aid, but say their current budgets will only be enough to help 116,000 people in the southern regions of Androy, Anosy and Atsimo Andrefana that have been worst affected.

In Andranovory, a town in Androy, the price of food and water has shot up as a result of the drought. "It is hard to find something to drink because the ten-litre jerry can of water costs 2000 ariary [$1]," said Jeannette Ratianarivo, a mother of five, who lives in a small village near Andranovory. The average monthly income in Madagascar is $26.

To find free drinking water, Ratianarivo has to walk about 15 kilometres each day to the nearest well. The quality of the water is very poor, and it should only be used for animals or to wash clothes, she says, but out of desperation, people also use it to cook and as drinking water.

Dr Jocelyne Somarline, head of the Centre for Basic Health, a public health facility in Andranovory, says many villagers have fallen ill and suffer from diarrhoea because they consume unclean water. "The majority of villagers who live near the national roads collect rain water from [potholes in] the road because it’s often the only source of water. But it’s not safe," she told IPS.

Others have nothing else left to eat than the fruit of the raketa cactus, a common desert plant. The fruit, which tastes similar to a sweet potato, is juicy and filling and often used by the poor to replace rice in their diet. But as a staple, it is not sustainable in the long term, says Somarline.

As a means of survival, families have also started to sell household goods and cattle, whose price has halved since the beginning of the drought, in order to buy food.

Rising prices

Although drought is common in the south of Madagascar, this year’s lack of rainfall has been extreme. "The cereal harvest in April was lost because of the delay or lack of rainfall. This loss of our main crop has resulted in higher prices for basic foods such as maize and cassava on the market," explained Andrien Hatsisenjanahary, traditional chief of Androy.

The situation is bound to get worse. April surveys by UNICEF and WFP indicate the situation is deteriorating by the month, partly because the June harvests of sorghum and corn are also expected to fall short. According to quarterly magazine Système D'Alerte Précoce (SAP), the number of Malgasy affected by drought and hunger is expected to rise to 560,000 by September.

Farmers are not the only ones affected by the lack of rain. Those whose livelihoods depend on livestock are vulnerable too. In combination with falling cattle prices, many farmers are losing animals due to lack of water and dried-up grazing land.

"The situation is worrying because the next lean period, in February, will even be tighter after this bad harvest," said Bruno Rakotoson, WFP spokesperson in Androy.

Political instability prevailing in Madagascar since January 2009, when a coup ousted then-president Marc Ravalomanana, has been aggravating the already precarious situation of Madagascar’s poor. Humanitarian assistance has been withdrawn by most international aid organisations since Madagascar’s new president, Andry Rajoelina, formed a transitional government that has not been officially recognised by the African Union, the Southern African Development Community or many of the countries that provide development and humanitarian assistance.

Aid withdrawn

Although the government-funded Malagasy National Office for Nutrition (ONN) built a number of centres last year in the country’s southern regions to offer nutritional support to people affected by drought, especially small children, a lack of financial resources has compromised the work of the centres.

"One of our objectives is to regain the confidence of donors to be able to go on with our activities," said ONN national coordinator Patricia Djiivadjee.

WFP and UNICEF, together with Care International and local non-governmental organisations, have jumped in to help nutritional rehabilitation. "Additional funds must be mobilised [so that we can provide an additional] 4,000 tonnes of food," explained WFP Madagascar resident representative Christina Bednarska.

To quickly drum up more aid, the United Nations made a flash appeal in April, calling for additional international assistance. In response, the French government has promised $1.8 million to WFP, as well as $628,000 to UNICEF for the prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition.

However, the donation by France will cover only eight percent of the total financial aid needed to counter the effects of the drought, according to UN resident coordinator Xavier Leus.

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