Madagascar is one of the most prone countries to extreme weather hazards in the world, and the third most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Frequent flooding, tropical storms, cyclones and droughts have devastating impacts on the population and humanitarian needs throughout the island. Climate change is expected to further increase both the frequency and strength of extreme weather events over time.
Five storms in less than two months
Madagascar’s annual cyclone season spans from November to March. During this time, at least one or two cyclones is expected causing heavy rains, winds, flooding and rising sea levels. In early 2022 alone, the country has experienced five tropical storms, including two intense tropical cyclones that occurred only two weeks apart and followed similar paths of destruction.
Between January and March, over 200 people died from these storms. Around 420,000 have been affected, and more than 169,000 people had their homes damaged or destroyed. Families were left without access to food, drinking water, electricity, shelter, or basic hygiene supplies in the periods following each storm. Hospitals, schools and farmland were largely demolished, leaving populations without medical care, children without education and entire agricultural-dependent communities without food production or livelihoods, all of which will have consequences long after the storms have passed. Around 60,000 hectares of rice fields were flooded twice by the back-to-back cyclones and some areas lost as much as 90% of food production sources.
The worst drought in 40 years
While the northern and eastern regions of the country have faced flooding and heavy rains, the south has been experiencing the worst drought in 40 years. Following several years of below-average rainfall and the effects of climate change, around a million and a half people in the region are now alarmingly food insecure.
“The population relies heavily on subsistence agriculture and rain-fed crops,” explains Lili Bazin, Humanity & Inclusion (HI) Disaster Risk Reduction technical referent. “So the drought has dramatic impacts on their food security and livelihoods.”
Between 2018 and 2021, the price of water increased by 300%. Some families have been reported eating dirt or boiling strips of leather just to get by in the ongoing crisis. The alarming lack of food puts pregnant mothers and children under the age of five at heightened risk of malnutrition, which could result in developmental complications.
Such dramatic meteorological events feed into a vicious cycle wherein natural disasters create humanitarian need by causing destruction, while pre-existing sources of vulnerability magnify the consequences of those disasters.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, making the population that much more vulnerable in times of crisis. When faced with the stresses of food insecurity or disaster, many are forced to sell their assets or pull children out of school to cope with the consequences. Education dropout rates have increased since the drought began, as have rates of gender based violence and early marriage. With resources and infrastructure frequently threatened, rebuilding becomes increasingly difficult, and needs continue to grow.
The most vulnerable groups are often left behind in at-risk regions, as many cannot afford to relocate from isolated regions or lack the resources to do so, such as information or transportation. Impacts are even greater on older populations, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and people from minority groups who may face discrimination or physical barriers to accessing aid.
HI works to reduce the impacts
“200 deaths this year is of course 200 more than we want,” says Olivier Benquet, HI geographic director for Madagascar. “But there is some hope as this is a relatively low number considering the scale of these disasters. That is the result of improving disaster risk reduction.”
Lili explains, “We can’t prevent the wind, and we can’t prevent the rains. But we can keep natural events from becoming natural disasters by predicting where they may strike, anticipating their impacts on lives and livelihoods, and by acting accordingly ahead of time to prepare communities.”
HI has implemented disaster risk reduction projects throughout the world, and in Madagascar specifically, for years. To better prepare communities faced with climate shocks and events, the organization strengthens local structures, supports education services, raises awareness of risks, implements monitoring and early warning systems, and assists individuals in making their livelihoods more sustainable, among other initiatives.
Inclusive Anticipatory Action
“With today’s technology and meteorological forecasts, we can see a cyclone coming in advance,” Olivier explains. “When we see that, we can start to move our teams to the targeted areas, stock supplies, warn communities, evacuate people, and reinforce structures. We know these events are going to happen more often. So it is critical that we adapt and further develop our risk reduction efforts in the face of environmental changes.”
In January 2022, HI launched a new three-year disaster risk reduction project to put inclusive anticipatory action in three countries prone to natural disasters: Madagascar, Haiti and the Philippines. The initiative uses the science of weather and climate to anticipate possible impacts in risk-prone areas and mobilizes teams, materials and practices to enact early action protocol and mitigate potential impacts before they can be felt. Through the initiative, HI will conduct studies to better understand associated risks on vulnerable populations, locate affected communities, reinforce community capacities to respond, run simulation exercises and ensure the inclusion of marginalized groups (people with disabilities, elderly populations, women, minorities, etc.) in these efforts.
In Madagascar alone, the project targets nearly 330,000 beneficiaries. In Haiti, it aims to benefit over 200,000 and another 200,000 in the Philippines.
“We will always support communities recovering from disaster,” Lili says. “But at the end of the day, if we can prepare ahead of time and prevent the disaster from occurring, that’s the real goal.”