Sunday, 21 March 2010

Madagascar: living with cyclones

Earlier this month tropical storm Hubert struck Madagascar's east coast, killing at least 36 people and leaving almost 40,000 people homeless. The worst hit areas are reported to be around Nosy Varika - a tiny and extremely remote town on the south-east coast of Madagascar.

Two years ago I traveled to Nosy Varika with the Malagasy radio journalist Lea Fanihia. It was quite an epic journey to say the least. After an arduous 14-hour drive from the capital Antananarivo to Mananjary, we boarded a speed boat of the Deutsche Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action) to make our way up the Pangalanes Canal.

I vividly remember the passing procession of boats all shapes and sizes as we whizzed by, the endless rice paddies and the kids of all ages on shore waving, laughing and running trying to race us.

The beautiful little villages of clustered thatched huts on the banks of the Pangalanes evoked a picture postcard of paradise... but this image is deceiving. You only need to get off the boat and speak to the locals to realize how harsh reality really is. This is one of the poorest regions in Madagascar. And if poverty was not enough to deal with - cyclones, heavy rains and floods hit and flatten this region every single year.

It takes about half a day by speed boat to reach Nosy Varika. The coastal village is cut off from the rest of the island. Radio communication is literally the only means of contact the inhabitants have with the outside world. There are no fixed line telephones and no mobile phone networks. Even in the dry season, the area is difficult to reach and jeeps struggle on the potholed dirt tracks.

In the rainy season, you can forget it. It is not even worth trying to get through. The locals use the waterways to get around, travelling along the Pangalanes Canal in boats or in traditional pirogue canoes.

Along with the north of the island and the entire east coast, Nosy Varika is hit by cyclones nearly every year. It's part of life. Only the names change: Grettelle, Indlala, Jaya, Dina, Clovis - now Hubert.

The material damage is always enormous: roads, bridges and houses destroyed, fields laid to waste and the annual rice harvest annihilated. In the storms' aftermath the people in the affected areas often face famine.

Back in 2007, Lea and I visited an emergency project run by the German Agro Action that distributes emergency food aid and also offers a so-called "food for work" programme.

Helping people help themselves

But in remote rural areas like Nosy Varika, inhabitants cannot rely on outside help to cope with the cyclones. They need to be able to protect themselves and have to deal with the after-effects. The list of preventative measures is a long: catastrophe committees, better communications infrastructures, early-warning systems and food storage facilities.

The co-ordinator of Care International in Madagascar, Didier Young, told us back in 2007 that he supports the introduction of new rice varieties that ripen faster and can therefore be harvested up to two months before the cyclone season begins. As an added benefit, this would stop the annual flooding of the rice paddies during the rainy season, he said. But he added that his agency is struggling to convince the Malagasy.

The Malagasy are highly traditional people. Their culture revolves around ancestor worship - a practice based on the belief that deceased family members have the ability to influence the fortunes of the living. Because of this, many things are "fady," which means they are forbidden. For example, new rice varieties are ignored because these have not been handed down by Malagasy ancestors.

Deforestation with fatal consequences

Another obstacle in the way of change is the extreme poverty on the island. Three-quarters of Madagascar's 18 million population live on less than a dollar a day, and don't have enough to eat. People who live in poverty generally have little incentive or time to worry about the environment.

Acute deforestation is now visible all over the island. It increases the devastation left by cyclones and causes flooding, landslides and the degradation of rice paddies. Without the forest's natural barriers, sand and debris flows into the irrigation channels of rice paddies and blocks them. Topsoil is also swept away, leaving fields deficient in nutrients and useless for growing. When the wet season's heavy rainfall comes, there is nothing to stop water from flooding valleys.

Cutting down trees illegally to sell as lumber is a way for the islanders to survive. People also cut down trees to use wood for cooking and heating. The average annual income of a Malagasy is only around 250 dollars. According to the UN, the island is one of the poorest and least developed in the world.

Political deadlock fueling the humanitarian crisis

Madagascar's political deadlock is yet another threat to the fragile humanitarian situation. Last year former President Marc Ravalomanana was forced from power by Andry Rajoelina with support from parts of the armed forces. Rajoelina has installed himself has President and Madagascar has remained without an internationally recognized government since.

Amid the political turmoil and economic decline, aid organizations are worried that the humanitarian situation will even deteriorate more and fear that the Malagasy government is becoming ever less able to respond to emergencies on the disaster-prone island.

Lea and I produced the radio feature "Living with natural disasters" in French, German, English and Malagassy which were broadcast on RNM, the Malagasy National Broadcaster, and Deutsche Welle.


Anonymous 20 December 2010 at 05:08  

nice post. thanks.

Anonymous 5 January 2011 at 16:02  

Nice site, nice and easy on the eyes and great content too.

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