The head of the World Food Program said Tuesday that more than a million people in southern Madagascar are "marching toward" starvation, and some 14,000 are already in famine-like conditions.
"You really can't imagine how bad it is," David Beasley told a small group of reporters about the conditions he saw during his trip last week to the East African island nation.
He said people are barely finding enough to eat, and many are dying. The WFP chief described people subsisting on mud and cactus flowers and hundreds of emaciated children with ripples of sagging skin on their limbs.
"It's something you see in a horror movie," Beasley said.
The country has suffered a series of successive droughts since 2014, leading to poor harvests. Last year, swarms of desert locusts swept through East Africa. Earlier this year two tropical storms appeared to bring some drought relief, but the rainfall, combined with warm temperatures, created ideal conditions for an infestation of fall armyworms, which destroy maize.
"There is no conflict driving these hunger numbers in the south," Beasley said, referring to the main cause of severe food insecurity affecting other countries. "It is strictly climate change; it is strictly drought upon drought upon drought."
Families have sold their land, their cattle and all their possessions to buy food.
In the absence of food people eat locusts to survive. Ambovombe district is one of the most affected districts and Ankao is among the villages where situation has worsened the most. (Credit: WFP/Tsiory Andriantsoarana)
The scope of the problem is daunting. More than a half million people in the south are one step away from starvation. Right behind them are roughly 800,000 more. Of the 14,000 already in famine-like conditions, WFP says their numbers could double in the coming months.
Beasley said his agency needs $78.6 million to get 1.3 million people through the lean season, which will begin in September and run through March. And they need the money now because it takes 3 to 4 months to move food into southern Madagascar.
"If we don't get that money, then you are talking about at least a half a million people being in famine-like conditions," said the WFP executive director.
That money buys essential food items, including cereals, beans, lentils and cooking oil for families.
Last week, the United States announced nearly $40 million in emergency assistance for southern Madagascar. The money will fund ongoing programs operated by WFP, UNICEF and Catholic Relief Services.
The worsening food crisis in southern Madagascar is not the only looming famine Beasley's agency is coping with.
WFP said Tuesday that 41 million people are on the brink of famine in 43 countries, and it won't take much to push them over the edge. That's up from 27 million in 2019. The agency needs $6 billion to assist them.
Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Sudan and Yemen are experiencing the severest food crises. Nigeria and Burkina Faso are also of special concern because they have in recent months had pockets of people in the highest crisis levels of hunger.
"We are in unprecedented waters right now, unlike anything we have seen since World War II," said Beasley. "The numbers are astounding."