More than one million people in southern Madagascar are struggling to get enough to eat, due to what could become the first famine caused by climate change, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
The region has been hit hard by successive years of severe drought, forcing families in rural communities to resort to desperate measures just to survive.
Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, has a unique ecosystem which includes animals and plants found nowhere else on the planet. The country experiences a dry season, usually from May to October, and a rainy season that starts in November.
Daily life disrupted
However, climate change has disrupted the cycle, affecting smallholder farmers and their neighbours, said Alice Rahmoun, WFP Communications Officer in the capital, Antananarivo, speaking to UN News on Thursday.
"There is of course less rain, so when there is the first rain, they can maybe have hope and sow some seeds. But one little rain is not a proper rainy season," she said.
"So, what we can say is that the impacts of climate change are really stronger and stronger... .so harvests fail constantly, so people don't have anything to harvest and anything to renew their food stocks."
Ms. Rahmoun was recently in southern Madagascar, where WFP and partners are supporting hundreds of thousands of people through short and long-term assistance.
The impact of the drought varies from place to place, she said. While some communities have not had a proper rainy season for three years, the situation might be even worse 100 kilometres away.
She recalled seeing villages surrounded by dried-out fields, and tomato plants which were "completely yellow, or even brown", from lack of water.
Surviving on locusts
"In some areas they are still able to plant something, but it's not easy at all, so they are trying to grow sweet potatoes. But in some other areas, absolutely nothing is growing right now, so people are just surviving only eating locusts, eating fruits and cactus leaves," said Ms. Rahmoun.
"And, just as an example, cactus leaves are usually for cattle; it is not for human consumption."
The situation is even more dire because, she added, "even the cactus are dying from the drought, from the lack of rain and the lack of water, so it's really, really worrying".
Families barely coping
The plight of families is also deeply troubling. "People have already started to develop coping mechanisms to survive," she said.
"And that means that they are selling cattle, for example, to get money to be able to buy food, when before, they were able to get food and feed themselves from their own field production, so it's really changing the daily life for people."
Valuable assets such as fields, or even houses, are also put up for sale. Some families have even pulled their children out of school.
"It's also a strategy right now to gather the family's forces on finding income-generating activities involving children, so this has obviously a direct impact on education," Ms. Rahmoun said.
Providing life-saving aid
WFP is collaborating with humanitarian partners, and the Malagasy Government, to provide two types of response to the crisis. Some 700,000 people are receiving life-saving food aid, including supplementary products to prevent malnutrition.
"The second one is more long-term response to allow local communities to be able to prepare for, respond to and recover from climate shocks better," said Ms. Rahmoun. "So, this includes resilience projects such as water projects. We're doing irrigation canals, reforestation and even microinsurance to help smallholder farmers to recover from a lost harvest, for example."
WFP ultimately aims to support up to one million people between now and April, and is seeking nearly $70 million to fund operations. "But we are also involving more partners to find and fund climate change solutions for the community to adapt to the impacts of climate change in southern Madagascar."
COP26: Prioritize adaptation
In just over a week, world leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 UN climate change conference, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called the last chance to "literally turn the tide" on an ailing planet.
Ms. Rahmoun said WFP wants to use the conference to shift the focus from crisis response, to risk management.
Countries must be prepared for climate shocks, and they must act together to reduce severe impacts on the world's most vulnerable people, which includes the villagers of southern Madagascar.
"COP26 is also an opportunity for us to ask governments and donors to prioritize funding relating to climate adaptation programmes, to help countries to build a better risk management system, and even in Madagascar, because if nothing is done, hunger will increase exponentially in the coming years because of climate change," she said, adding: "not only in Madagascar, but in other countries."