Madagascar is facing a devastating famine. The southern part of the East African island, home to 30 million people, has witnessed the worst droughts in decades. Crops have failed and citizens are facing starvation. Yet the real cause of this impending disaster is difficult to pin down.
For months, the UN has been warning that Madagascar is on the brink of the world’s first ‘climate-change-induced famine’, stating that more than 1.3 million people are considered to be in a food security crisis or emergency as a result. This striking pronouncement has been repeated in headlines all around the world. However, a study published at the start of December by World Weather Attribution, an international research collective, has cast doubt on the narrative.
While the lack of rain in the south has certainly been unusual – the rainy seasons of both 2019–20 and 2020–21 saw just 60 per cent of normal rainfall across southern Madagascar, a one-in- 135-year dry event – the WWA researchers noted that the risk has not significantly increased due to human-caused climate change. The study goes on to state that ‘poverty, poor infrastructure and dependence on rain-fed agriculture, combined with natural climate variability, are the main factors behind the Madagascar food crisis, with climate change playing no more than a small part.’
There’s no doubt that Madagascar stands at the forefront of the climate crisis. The island nation is already facing increased aridity and is projected to experience more frequent droughts, increased precipitation and flooding, as well as more severe tropical cyclones. As one of the poorest nations in the world, it’s also ill-equipped to face these challenges. However, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, these impacts are not expected to affect drought in Madagascar until global warming reaches 2°C above the pre-industrial era. At present the increase is around 1.1°C.
The situation highlights the complexity of definitively linking extreme weather events to climate change, and the risks inherent in doing so. Nevertheless, one thing remains clear. Madagascar is still vulnerable – to famine and to climate change. Following COP26, the world is on track for 2.4°C of warming. At that point, there will be little doubt left as to the cause of the increase in frequency of natural and human disasters.