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Failure of seasonal rains leads to hardship and malnutrition in Madagascar

UNICEF Image: Madagascar, child malnutrition
© UNICEF video
A child carries crops in a severely drought-affected region in southern Madagascar, where children are suffering from malnutrition.

By Guy Hubbard

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, 27 July 2009 – As world attention shifts towards environmental issues, the effects of climate change are being felt on the island nation of Madagascar.

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The dusty south of the country has always been dry, but biannual rains meant farmers could plant and harvest their crops – usually sweet potatoes and maize – twice a year. It was enough to see them and their families through the lean seasons.
But for the last two years those rains have failed, once mighty rivers have dried to a trickle and crops have died. People, especially children, have begun to starve.

‘There was no rain’

Liatinahie is a farmer and mother of 10. She and her husband lost their crops earlier this year and began to run out of food. Although the whole family was hungry, their youngest daughter suffered the most.

“I had seeds and planted sweet potatoes, but because there was no rain, they dried up,” recalled Liatinahie. “I noticed my daughter was getting thinner but there was no food and when she got even thinner I took her to the health centre.”

Almost every farmer in the three drought-affected regions of southern Madagascar has lost crops. In the last 20 years, the average annual rainfall here has fallen from 111 ml to a mere 27.5 ml. While droughts used to be the exception, occurring perhaps once every 10 years, now they’re the norm – and so is malnutrition among thousands of children throughout the drought affected area.

UNICEF Image: Madagascar, child malnutrition
© UNICEF video
At the health centre in southern Madagascar, a small child’s arm is measured to see if he is undernourished.

Alleviating the crisis

Nurse Tianason Sombason Mandanaina works at rural health centre near Tsihombe. He has personally treated hundreds of malnourished children in the last few months 

“Around 80 per cent  of children under five in this area are affected by malnutrition. Seventy per cent suffer from moderate malnutrition and 10 per cent from severe acute malnutrition,” he said.

UNICEF, in partnership with the World Food Programme and the Malagasy Ministry of Health, is attempting to alleviate the crisis. Through an early warning system – and with the help of community volunteers who go door to door – an estimated 80 per cent of malnourished children in the drought-affected regions have been reached.

Children at risk of malnutrition are weighed and measured at local health centres. Each child is then examined and, if necessary, given doses of fortified ready-to-use therapeutic food.

Long-lasting effects

After six weeks of treatment, Liatinahie’s daughter is chubbier and more energetic; even so, it will be another month and half before she is fully recovered.

For some children, the effects last far longer.

“There is a more long-term impact, and you can see it in pre-school children that have been malnourished. They are always tired, and when they reach school age they struggle to keep up,” said Mr. Mandanaina.

To ensure that malnourished children recover, and that their doses of ready-to-use therapeutic food is not shared with better-nourished siblings, families of malnourished children also receive given rice, chick peas and palm oil.

A few recent rains have provided some respite for farmers, but their beleaguered supplies won’t see them through the next six months when the next rains are due, if they come at all. Through climate change, the drought and malnutrition crisis in Madagascar is threatening to become the status quo, and malnutrition a way of life.




27 July 2009:
UNICEF correspondent Guy Hubbard reports on how climate change is affecting families in southern Madagascar.
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