By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, June 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Recurring drought in Madagascar's south has left more than 360,000 people on the brink of famine, a top United Nations official warned on Thursday, urging donors to do more to help people prepare for climate shocks.
Ursula Mueller, UN deputy humanitarian chief, said the impoverished Indian Ocean island was witnessing more frequent and severe weather events, such as droughts and cyclones, which were pushing already extremely vulnerable people to the edge.
"There is a need for immediate humanitarian assistance to save the lives of 366,000 people that are in emergency levels of food insecurity — which is one step away from famine," she said following a three-day visit to Madagascar.
"We need to build their resilience so that they can withstand the next shocks of drought, flood, cyclones, and epidemics, and improve their lives," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Madagascar is one of Africa's poorest countries. A lack of basic services — from health and education to employment opportunities — as well as poverty and climate change have exposed many of its 26 million people to natural disasters.
About 9 in 10 people live on less than $2 a day, more than 50% of children under 5 are chronically malnourished, and access to clean water is the fourth lowest in the continent, according to UN data.
In the last two decades, the country has been struck by 35 cyclones, eight floods, and five periods of severe drought — a three-fold rise over the previous 20 years.
Mueller said the south of the island — known as the Grand Sud — was severely underdeveloped and people were facing and high levels of malnutrition.
A drought caused by two years of erratic rainfall between 2015 and 2017, aggravated by the El Niño phenomenon, has left about 1.3 million people short of food.
Western nations provided about 60% of the funds needed for emergency food aid last year, but an appeal by the UN and the Malagasy government for $190 million to help them bounce back from the crisis was only 1.5% funded, she said.
"During my three days in Madagascar, I saw the impact of climate change — with the poorest and most vulnerable people bearing the brunt of a phenomenon that they had no hand in creating," said Mueller.
"With every new shock, people's resilience is eroded. The country has severe needs — yet all too often the world has focused elsewhere."
Funding could support school feeding programs, boost health care and provide alternative incomes when disasters strike.
"It's very important that the international community steps up for recovery and resilience building projects. It's a good investment to invest in preventing major events linked to climate change," Mueller said.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla. Editing by Claire Cozens and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)