Scientists sound the alarm over drought, but it’s what you don’t see that matters

Madagascar is in the grips of a hunger crisis. In October, the government declared a state of emergency in the country after a severe drought caused severe malnutrition to spread among children in the south of the country. Now, the government is asking for international assistance, while a United Nations official reports “high mortality rates among malnourished children in southern Madagascar.”

But scientists say that there’s a bigger cause at work than climate change. In fact, some researchers have instead linked the poor conditions to natural phenomena and say an unusual heat wave hit the country around the same time that those same government officials declared an emergency.

More than one million people in Madagascar, a country with a population of 40 million, are estimated to be facing severe hunger.

The year has been far from sunny in Madagascar, whose famed orange dessert, Amelie, has been in decline for decades. The central government, struggling with a high inflation rate, delayed payment of its bills. Then, in October, the United Nations declared a state of emergency in the southern region of Malabonga due to severe drought. Thousands of people faced starvation there.

The government said that it was concerned over population movement, which has historically been a problem in the country. However, researchers looking at records of social activity by national population counts analyzed aerial photographs of the country and came to the conclusion that the heat had hit just when government officials made a state of emergency declaration. This finding was then shared with other scientists, some of whom felt the situation was similar to a year earlier, when a similar disaster triggered a state of emergency.

“The time frame of the drought was approximately the same as the time frame when the authorities declared a state of emergency in November 2015,” said one of the scientists who presented their study in October, citing data that came to light from a statistical study.

Others argued that the bulk of the data in the study is dated and that it wasn’t exactly clear how warm the warming actually was. Such details can lead to social disputes over the validity of the findings. But the results were shared between experts such as Igor Vasilyev, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“Most of the data sets of an interesting quality of quality in terms of historical data. I think the data quality there has actually been rather good,” Vasilyev said. “But I don’t think the investigation is very thorough. Most of the paper comes from the social science literature.”

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