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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – As world leaders meet for the United Nation’s COP27 climate change conference, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is highlighting the environmental crisis in Madagascar.

The island nation off the coast of Africa has been plagued by heatwaves, wildfires, floods, and even the plague.

CRS – the international development arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference – have been working in the country for years, and says it is being heavily affected by the climate crisis.

“We have been facing a lot of drought in the south over the last five or six years,” said Rado Ravonjiarivelo, the Environmental Compliance & Climate Integration Program Manager for CRS Madagascar.

He told Crux this has led to severe food insecurity, and noted the United Nations said the situation in the country “may be the first-climate change famine on earth.”

He said the southeast of the country, including Mananjary, faces a different form of the climate crisis.

“On February 5, 2022, tropical cyclone Batsirai [a Category 4 storm] hit the southeast coast of Madagascar bringing over 150 kilometer per hour (90 mph) winds and rain to communities along the coast, ravaging homes, buildings, farms, schools, and over 20 roads and 17 bridges were destroyed, making the worst-affected areas inaccessible by road,” Ravonjiarivelo said.

Another cyclone hit just weeks later. In fact, between the end of January and the beginning of March, five tropical storms and cyclones hit the island.

In the country’s coastal areas, cyclones killed about 136 people, destroyed up to 90 percent of the houses and flooded up to 80 percent of farmlands. The Madagascar National Office for Risk and Disaster Management notes that 521,000 people were affected by the cyclones, particularly in the southeast regions of the country.

In addition to destroyed homes, climate change in Madagascar is also affecting aquatic life, with Ravonjiarivelo telling Crux that “we see some of the effects on the availability of fish. Most of the loss and damage in Madagascar is related to the loss of biodiversity, especially the loss of marine biodiversity.”

The question of Loss and Damage has been a great talking point at the COP27, at least from the perspective of the NGOs present.

In UN negotiations, the concept refers to permanent loss or repairable damage caused by the manifestations of climate change, including both severe weather events and slow-onset events, such as sea level rise and desertification. It can also refer to economic or noneconomic harm, such as loss of life, livelihoods, ecosystems, or cultural heritage.

Countries most affected by climate change have been pushing polluters to pay for the losses they incur as a result of a warming climate.

CRS has published “Loss and Damage in Madagascar: Paddling against a Stream” to document the situation in the country. It estimates that 70 percent of rice cultivation was damaged, 70 percent of cassava cultivation was damaged, and 50 percent of cloves, vanilla, and coffee destroyed.

In addition, the country’s housing and infrastructure stock has suffered millions of dollars in damage.

Ravonjiarivelo says Madagascar needs help to cope with these losses, which represent 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

“Communities, farmers are struggling to bounce back, from those extreme events, some of them lost a hundred percent of their agriculture meaning that they do not have any source of income, and food security will become an issue in the next few months. Recovery will be hard for those communities,” he told Crux.

According to the World Bank, Madagascar will require at least $500 million to rebuild, but those estimates still fall short of the actual damage, because they are based on the immediate assessments made when the disasters stroke.

“We also have to look at our cultural and biodiversity losses that may be gone forever,” Ravonjiarivelo said.

He said efforts are being made to give respite to the communities reeling from the damage, including supplies of such basic commodities like food and soap, but those won’t stabilize the communities for long.

“We cannot rely on those rapid needs of the community with support from donors and governments for them to bounce back. We need to devise strategies to develop the long-term resilience of the communities by building their capacities to adapt to climate change as well as mitigate future shocks,” he told Crux.

He said CRS has been providing emergency response, “but we are also working long term to provide resiliency to communities. For instance, in southern Madagascar, we are engaged in a comprehensive program of food security and in the east we are involved in landscape management, supporting value chains in terms of agriculture. We are getting mostly the cash crops to support the communities in terms of income generating activities for long term sustainability,” he said.

“We have to support them restore their agricultural lands, restore their livelihoods and we support them in terms of short-, medium- and long-term income generating activities. In addition to that we work to restore biodiversity because 80 percent of Madagascar relies on agriculture, and agriculture relies on biodiversity and the soil. So we are restoring the soil, restoring the landscape,” he continued.

“For example, part of the response that we provided was to ensure that we funded the rebuilding of some of the homes destroyed and farmlands restored. As a Catholic NGO, we are working with the communities to promote the long-term resilience of those communities and if we are successful in what we are doing, that would be the biggest advocacy for the resilience of the community. We are using private funds to provide for loss and damage, not because of COP, but because we think this is the right thing to do,” he said.

Ravonjiarivelo says CRS’s efforts and those of other NGOs were limited by lack of resources. The good news though is that some progress has been made at COP27. After three decades of resistance, developed countries have finally come to terms with the reality that they need to commit funds for loss and damage directed toward countries most affected by climate change.

In Glasgow last year, only Scotland committed $2.2 million. But more developed countries are coming forward in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Again, it was Scotland leading the pack with a promise of an additional $5.7million. “There is a real need to make tangible progress,” said that country’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Prime Minister Micheál Martin of Ireland said his country was pledging $10 million to a new effort “to protect the most vulnerable from climate loss and damage.”

Australia’s climate minister said his country will be committing $50 million, while Belgium promised $2.5 million in loss and damage funding to Mozambique. Denmark committed $13 million and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged $170 million to a new program that would offer vulnerable nations a form of insurance in the event of climate emergencies.