Following the UN SG’s visit to Madagascar, El Nino threatens gains against malnutrition

madahunger2El Nino, a warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific, has aggravated dry conditions and worsened a food crisis not only in Madagascar, an island 400 km (250 miles) off the coast of mainland Africa, but also across the wider southern African region where more than 31 million people are now affected by food shortages.

Delayed planting and shriveled crops are expected to lead to a grain deficit of at least 8 million tonnes in the region. Even South Africa, usually a net exporter of grains to its neighbors, has been forced to import maize, its staple food, meanwhile Malawi and Zimbabwe have declared the drought a national disaster.

In Madagascar, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) and other aid agencies already are helping with food distributions, projects to help farmers cultivate what they can, and efforts to provide food in exchange for clearing land or fixing roads. But even in relatively normal times, many Malagasy struggle to eat enough food – and the right kind.


Nine in 10 people live on less than $3.10 a day, and the country has one of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world. Virtually one in two children are stunted, and little progress has been made over the past 20 years in reducing that.

Malagasy pay a heavy price for malnourishment: it costs the economy an estimated $1.5 billion, or 14.5 percent of its GDP, every year in terms of additional burdens on the health system and schools and losses of workforce productivity, a study led by the African Union Commission shows.

For almost 20 years, Ankilimafaitsy primary school in Ambovombe district has run a feeding programme, offering students a daily meal of maize and beans. The school’s director Seraphine Sasara says her pupils are noticeably thinner after the summer break. “They put on weight when they come back to school. It takes about a month before they are ready to study,” she said.

Pointing to a small vegetable patch tended by teachers and students, Sasara said: “We try to provide for ourselves. We can’t rely on WFP forever.” But it is hard for the south to shake off its aid dependence – not least because it lies far from the help of the capital, Antananarivo, more than 1,000 kms (620 miles) away.


Largely cut off by poor roads, the region has long been neglected as a result of its remoteness, aid officials say. The south needs not just international aid to help battle the drought, but more attention from the capital, said World Bank Country Manager Coralie Gevers. “The government also has a role to play,” she said, adding that “there is a long tradition in this country of spending most of the
budget on the capital and surrounding areas.”

During his recent visit to Madagascar, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Malagasy parliamentarians to address the existence of widespread poverty, poor economic growth and corruption that has weakened their society against the growing threat of malnutrition, which has only grown worse amid El Nino.

malsy“It paints an alarming picture. Nearly one out of two children here suffer from stunting. This is a tragedy for individuals and a disaster for development. Undernutrition costs more than a billion and a half dollars each year in Madagascar. That is almost 15 per cent of GDP. The human toll is immeasurable.”

Recalling that Madagascar is a member of the UN Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, Mr. Ban underscored that “nutrition is about more than feeding people. It requires attention to health, agriculture, education, women’s empowerment and water,” and thanked the active network of female Parliamentarians who champion the cause of nutrition.

As one ruined harvest after another continues to weaken the ability of many to recover, El Nino’s effects are a reminder why the conversation around reshaping aid must shift the focus from post-disaster response to preparedness and prevention.

This text was adapted from a Thomas Reuters Foundation story & UN News Centre press release.