Cyclone Freddy travelled from Australia to batter Madagascar, one of the most climate-vulnerable nations

The world’s fourth-largest island is suffering a drought since 2018; cyclones and also the first famine caused by climate change

By Akshit Sangomla
Published: Thursday 23 February 2023
The Indian Ocean, with Australia and Madagascar. Photo: iStock

Cyclone Freddy, which made landfall along Madagascar’s south-eastern coast February 21, 2023, is the most recent among the cyclones and tropical storms to badger the country for the past year or so.

This is when the island nation, known for its abundant biological and cultural diversity, is also suffering a five-year-old drought because of multiple failed rainfall seasons, especially in its southern regions.

Such are the impacts of these global warming fuelled extreme weather events that they have brought the historically vulnerable people of the country to the brink because of loss of livelihoods, famine and migration.

Freddy travelled around 7,200 km from the southeast Indian Ocean to Madagascar in 15 days, according to the United Kingdom Met Office. This is the first time since 2000 that a cyclone has moved such a long distance from the south-eastern parts to the south-western parts of the Indian Ocean.

It is highly unusual for cyclones to be sustained for such long time periods and travel such long distances, according to the US National Aeronautical and Space Administration’s (NASA) Earth Observatory.

The storm carried winds of 130 kilometres per hour at landfall and has brought torrential rainfall for south-eastern Madagascar, killing five people.

“Tropical Cyclone #FREDDY is now in the Mozambique Channel moving westwards away from Madagascar tracking towards Mozambique. Projected landfall near Beira on the coast of Mozambique on Friday morning,” the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services tweeted February 23.

In Madagascar most of the impact is around the town of Mananjary which was severely hit by cyclone Batsirai in February 2022.

Madagascar was also hit by tropical storm Cheneso in January 2023. The storm made landfall on January 19 along the northeastern coast of the country, killing 33 people and affecting 90,870, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

There was a flurry of storms that wreaked havoc on Madagascar last year as well. From the middle of January to early February, 2022, three tropical storm systems battered Madagascar with extremely heavy rains.

The rainfall started with an inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ) in mid-January which is the region near the equator where the northeast and southwest trade winds converge to form a band of clouds with rainfall and occasional thunderstorms.

The ITCZ gave way to two back-to-back tropical storm systems — first tropical storm Ana in the last week of January and then cyclone Batsirai in the first week of February.

Most of the damage caused by the storms was due to heavy rainfall which has been partly attributed to global warming by World Weather Attribution, a global consortium of climate scientists trying to study the role played by climate change in increasing the frequency or intensity of extreme weather events.

The havoc did not just stop there. Just after Batsirai, there was tropical storm Dumako that impacted Madagascar February 15 and tropical cyclone Emnati that made landfall in the country on February 23.

February 2022 was the first month since 1988 when three storms made landfall in Madagascar in a single month, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

According to UN OCHA, there were a total of six tropical weather systems (tropical storm Gombe on March 8 and tropical storm Jasmine on April 26), apart from the ITCZ, that affected Madagascar between January and April causing 214 deaths and affecting 0.96 million people.

Before the flood

Before the advent of the cyclones the region’s food security was threatened by droughts. Southern Madagascar’s Grand Sud region has been undergoing a severe drought because of the failure of rainfall season in two back to back years, 2020 and 2021.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimated in September 2022 that up to 2.13 million people would be food insecure in the near future and the crisis would span all the southern districts of Madagascar. The food insecurity is due to factors such as inflation, dwindling stocks of food and decreasing purchasing power of households, according to WFP.

The WFP also called it the world’s first famine caused because of climate change.

From August 2022, the WFP also started doling out unconditional food distribution to 145, 944 people affected by the cyclones in 2022. It is planning for conducting similar activities in the current cyclone season.

All the crisis caused by climatic impacts in the rest of the country has been pushing people into poverty and making them migrate to cities and urban settlements for the past few years.

UN International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) says that whatever progress in terms of poverty alleviation was achieved between 2013 and 2019 was washed away by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 2020, around 1.8 million people have fallen back into extreme poverty with the rate set to reach 81 per cent in 2022, the highest it has been since 2012.

IOM estimates that “over 100,000 people yearly migrate from rural to urban areas, especially to the capital of Antananarivo, where over half of the country’s urban population lives.”

“This results in 60-70 per cent of the informal constructions in the city being in slum-like conditions, contributing to unplanned urbanisation,” says the IOM’s Madagascar Crisis Response Plan 2023.

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