YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Madagascar is facing a “frightening” humanitarian crisis, according to the head of the German bishops’ international office.

Madagascar is an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean. The United Nations has warned droughts could push 400,000 people toward starvation in the nation of 26 million people.

“Due to the unprecedented drought of the last few weeks, mass deaths are threatening there. People are living on insects, clay and loose leaves. The situation is disastrous, the extent of hunger frightening. I therefore appeal to the international community to act quickly to prevent an even greater famine,” said Archbishop Dr Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, the chairman of the Commission for the Universal Church of the German Bishops’ Conference, in a letter asking for support for the nation.

Schick was at the head of a delegation that travelled to Madagascar in May 2018 for the eighth meeting of German and African bishops, held in the capital, Antananarivo.

The German archbishop said drought and sandstorms have driven many people from rural areas in search of food.

“Their fields have dried up completely,” he said.

“The south of the country has been hit particularly hard. People there have been dependent on nutritional support from foreign aid organizations for weeks. Children and infants are the worst affected by the hunger. Many of them are only skin and bones,” said Schick.

He said Catholic relief agencies across Germany, including Caritas and Misereor, “are receiving more and more dramatic calls for help from bishops and project partners on the ground these days.”

But the financial capabilities of the Church agencies means they can’t meet the needs.

“Without radical aid measures, the number of hungry people will double in a very short time. In view of this alarming scenario, the global community has a duty to ensure the survival of the people,” Schick said.

The call comes in the wake of a fresh UN report that shows Madagascar as one of two “highest alert” hunger hotspots, the other country being Ethiopia where over 400,000 people face hunger as a result of the conflict in Tigray.

The two UN agencies warned that at least 500,000 children under five in the country’s South are facing “acute malnutrition.”

Shelley Thakral, communications and advocacy specialist with the World Food Program, told The Worldthat the people of Madagascar are merely coping.

Apart from the rations that we give them, often they’re just foraging, eating whatever they can find — that is plants, that are leaves, that is this red cactus fruit. It’s what we call survival coping mechanisms. There’s a word in Malagasy which means ‘empty stomach.’ Children who we met at some of the treatment centers for severe acute malnutrition, children who you would look at and you would think they were tiny toddlers, but they are probably 5 or 6 years old because poor nourishment, underdevelopment, obviously, affects a child’s growth,” she said.

“When you sit in the centers, it’s just silence, you know. There’s no energy for children to laugh, to speak. I met one brother and sister whose mother was in the field. I asked both the little boy and the little girl, his sister, what their names were. They barely could lift their eyes to look at me. And it was so sad to see tiny, tiny children whose childhood has just been almost stolen from them,” Thakral told The World.

According to WFP, 1.14 million people in southern Madagascar don’t have enough food including 14,000 in “catastrophic” conditions, and this will double to 28,000 by October.

Madagascar is the only country that isn’t in conflict but still has people facing “Famine-Humanitarian Catastrophe” in the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification known as the IPC, which is a global partnership of 15 U.N. agencies and international humanitarian organizations that uses five categories to measure food security.

In June, the U.N. and Madagascar’s government launched an appeal for about $155 million to provide life-saving food to prevent a major famine

Lola Castro, WFP’s regional director in southern Africa, told a news conference June 25 that she witnessed “a very dramatic and desperate situation” during her visit with WFP chief David Beasley to Madagascar.

In 28 years working for WFP on four continents, Castro said she had “never seen anything this bad” except in 1998 in Bahr el-Gazal in what is now South Sudan.

Pope Francis visited Madagascar in September 2019, in one of his last international trips before the COVID-19 pandemic.