Famine is looming in southern Madagascar and emergency food aid is needed for hundreds of thousands of people to head off a humanitarian disaster on the African island nation, the U.N. World Food Program warned.
Five consecutive years of drought, exacerbated by unexpected sandstorms, have depleted people's food stocks, forcing them to resort to desperate measures to survive.
The WFP senior director of operations in Madagascar, Amer Daoudi, said at least 1.35 million people are suffering from acute hunger, many of whom are living off locusts, raw cactus fruits or wild leaves.
He said malnutrition is soaring to alarming levels, putting the lives of many children under age five at risk. While on a diplomatic and governmental tour of the region, he said he saw horrific images of starving, malnourished and stunted children.
"And not only the children," Daoudi added. "Mothers, parents, and the population in the villages we visited. The situation is extremely, extremely worrisome, scary. They are on the periphery of famine."
The WFP official said most of Madagascar's southern districts are in a nutrition emergency as acute malnutrition has almost doubled over the last four months. He said people are dying but it is difficult to get an accurate count.
"If a child dies, they bury, there is no reporting, there is no official type of reporting to take these numbers," he said. "Same thing with grownups. We are already witnessing whole villages shutting down and moving to the nearest urban centers."
That movement, Daoudi said, is putting pressure on an already fragile food security situation in the cities.
He said WFP is short of money and limited in what it can do to address the hunger crisis. Because of the cash crunch, he said his agency has been forced to cut food rations by half for up to 750,000 people who are living on a knife's edge.
WFP is asking for $75 million immediately to cover the needs of hundreds of thousands of starving people over the next few months.