In parts of Madagascar's drought-prone south people have resorted to eating cattle-feed, as successive years of crop failures and the current lean season give food insecurity a firmer grip on the region.
"For some time now people have been changing their eating habits, with many eating red cactus that is usually given to cattle, or tamarind mixed with water and earth," said Harinesy Rajeriharineranio, southern Madagascar coordinator for Actions Socio-Sanitaire et Organisation Secours (ASOS), an NGO focused on health and sanitation, based in the southeastern city of Fort Dauphin.
About 720,000 people are facing food insecurity after a third successive year of adverse weather and an increasing "decapitalization" - selling off livestock and possessions as a survival measure - of the rural economy in the south.
The World Food Programme (WFP) in Madagascar said drought had caused the widespread failure of maize crops in the southern regions of Atsimo Andrefana, Androy and Anosy to fail. The lean season, when the previous harvest has been consumed and the new crops are not yet ready, runs from October to about March.
"Through reports from local partners since the beginning of the lean season in October, we know people have already started adopting negative coping strategies such as eating their own seeds, and foodstuffs which are damaging to their health, and selling their goods... men [are] migrating from these areas, leaving women and children even more vulnerable," Krystyna Bednarska, WFP's country representative, told IRIN.
"Two consecutive years of crop failure might lead to a quick deterioration of the food insecurity situation in an area which is already extremely and historically vulnerable," she said.
There was a similar scenario in 2009, but the necessary implementation of large-scale emergency and nutritional interventions were not taken in time because of a lack of funding, Bednarska said.
In March 2009, current President Andry Rajoelina and elements of the army took power from former President Marc Ravalomanana, and international development aid rapidly dried up.
Before Rajoelina assumed power, donor funding accounted for about 70 percent of government spending, but all ministries faced budget cuts of around this size in a revised budget in September 2010.
Traditionally, Madagascar's poorer and geographically isolated south has been relatively neglected by the political power base, mainly in the north, where the capital, Antananarivo, is located.
Nearly 70 percent of Malagasy live below the poverty line, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), but the number of poor tends to rise the further south you go, where most people depend on subsistence farming.
John Uniack Davis, country director at CARE International, which works to reduce poverty, said anecdotal evidence from the affected regions was that cattle normally selling for US$250 in the post-harvest period were priced at $62.50 in the lean season, or were being bartered for 250kg of cassava, rather than the usual price of 450kg.
He told IRIN that decapitalization was being used as a coping strategy and "[households] are being stretched to the limit."
The Malagasy government's Early Warning System (SAP), which started monitoring food insecurity in the arid south in 1996, said 53 communes were food insecure in August 2010, compared to 45 in August 2009 and 31 in August 2008.
USAID's Madagascar Mission Director, Rudolph Thomas, told IRIN after a visit in October 2010 "When you look out at the land it's very barren, there's very little grass and there's an occasional tree off in the distance. In fact, where there were riverbeds it's bone dry - there's just no water."
Thomas said USAID's $90 million programme for 2010 - when there were "two cyclones, two droughts, a coup and a locust infestation" - was the biggest in 20 years, with a $3 million donation to the WFP emergency programme, and $2 million to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for locust prevention.
Late and unusually heavy rains in the south were predicted to continue, but this could hinder rather than help the region's food security situation, the representative of the National Office for Natural Disasters Preparedness (BNGRC), Louis De Gonzague Rakotonirainy, told IRIN.
Lundi Peyrol, head of local NGO Let's Develop Madagascar (Hiaraka Hampandroso) based in Ampanihy, in the southwest, said the area had experienced four days of continuous rain and feared another week would destroy any chance of a harvest.
"There's been very little harvesting apart from a bit of maize, and at the moment there is rain, but if this continues it could damage crops and we could have no harvest at all," he said.
"The roads are almost cut... we risk being cut off from Tulear [main port city on the southwestern coast], and prices of essential goods on the market could go up even further," he said. Basic commodities were already about 50 percent more expensive in the south than in other parts of Madagascar due to its isolation, lack of markets and transport costs.
ASOS coordinator Rajeriharineranio said heavy rains in the vicinity of Fort Dauphin had already affected transport links - "Instead of taking trucks two to three days to come from central cities with supplies, it is now taking a week."
In the affected areas 300,000 children younger than five were at risk of severe acute malnutrition if action was not taken, said Bruno Maes, UNICEF's country representative.
Around 90 percent of Madagascar's children did not have access to clean drinking water at home, and "Just over 50 percent of children are stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition," he said. "This rate is among the highest in the world - the situation is only worse in Afghanistan and Yemen."
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