The UN’s World Food Programme and multiple media organizations have been warning that the African island nation of Madagascar is on the brink of the world’s first climate-change-induced famine. But a new study says the human-made climate crisis has had little to do with the current food scarcity in the country.
Consecutive years of low rainfall have led to a prolonged drought that has shaken Madagascar’s food security and has already pushed tens of thousands of people into famine-like conditions.
A study by scientists at the World Weather Attribution initiative, an international collaboration led by Imperial College London and the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, found that a natural variation in the climate was most likely the main reason for the drought.
The group said that poverty, poor infrastructure and a high level of dependence on rain for agriculture were also behind the country’s food crisis.
Madagascar received only around 60% of its usual average rainfall for two years in a row, the lowest in 30 years. The drought has led to widespread crop failure in the country’s south, and around 1.3 million people nationwide are in need of food assistance, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).
The scientists said that they couldn’t rule out climate change entirely as contributing to the lower rainfall, but its role, if any, was so small that it was indistinguishable from the country’s historical climate patterns.
“Instead, the study finds that vulnerability to low rainfall is the main factor behind the food crisis,” the study reads. “Covid restrictions to limit public health impacts also stopped people from the region going elsewhere in the country to find work, as many people have done at other times.”
WFP responded to the study by saying the food crisis was the result of a combination of above average temperatures, lower rainfall, crop failures and other vulnerabilities in communities dependent on subsistence agriculture, worsened by the economic impact of Covid-19.
“The WWA study does not attribute the 2019/2020 droughts solely to human-induced climate change. But it acknowledges that global heating increases vulnerabilities,” the organization said in a statement.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report published in August found that Madagascar was projected to see an increase in drought if global warming surpassed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is also predicted to experience a higher intensity of tropical cyclones.
The world has already experienced an average temperature rise of around 1.2 degrees Celsius.
The WFP wrote that it “is concerned that Madagascar and other countries will continue to have food crises if we do not mitigate the climate crisis and enable the vulnerable to adapt and build their resilience.”
Multiple media organizations, including CNN, had reported the WFP’s characterization of the food crisis as driven by the climate crisis.
The WWA scientists studied the heavily impacted southwest of the country, analyzing weather records, climate projections and computer simulations to compare the area’s current and past climate conditions.
The study found the region naturally experiences a high variation in its rain patterns. In today’s climate, Madagascar has a 1-in-135 chance of such a drought occurring in any given year, it showed.
Nonetheless, Madagascar remains vulnerable to the climate crisis, which is driven primarily from humans’ use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. As greenhouse gas emissions rise, the country is likely to experience increasing extreme weather impacts, including drought.
“If global temperatures rise further, Madagascar is likely to suffer from stronger tropical cyclones and, in places, possibly more droughts,” said Lisa Thalheimer, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, who took part in the study.
“Unless carbon emissions are reduced globally, any increase in extreme weather events will compound existing vulnerabilities and particularly harm the poorest people, making it harder for them to cope with compounding shocks like the one we are seeing now.”
And while the climate crisis may not have played a significant role in this drought, other analyses have shown it has been a major driver in reduced rainfall and drought in places like California and parts of the Middle East.
Other scientists involved in the study said the take-home message was to ramp up efforts to adapt to extreme weather events, which are only expected to become more frequent and more destructive the warmer the world gets.
“What we are seeing with this event in Madagascar shows that in many cases we are not even prepared for today’s climate,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
“Addressing the vulnerability in the region and improving the living conditions of the population remains critical.”