Dealing with the Changing Climate The Lessons of the Madagascar Drought
For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The dark hole swallows them up as they disappear into the shadows with their empty buckets. Several minutes pass before they reemerge, struggling under the heavy loads they are carrying on their shoulders. They balance carefully on the homemade ladders, with 20 meters (65 feet) of nothingness beneath them. But down in the bottom of the pit is the only place to get what they need the most: Water. And gold.
Ambolamena could be a wealthy place. Extremely wealthy. Residents essentially live on top of the valuable precious metal; one that can be found everywhere in the region. But the gold is unreachable at the moment. Without water, it can't be rinsed out of the earth – and the treasure must stay in the ground as the people up above slowly starve.
"We need an investor who can ensure supplies of water," says Martial, one of the gold miners. "Then we would be able to earn decent money again." But there are no investors who find their way to southern Madagascar. Apart from a recent storm, it hasn’t really rained in the region for more than two years, and the region is suffering through one of the worst droughts ever recorded. According to the World Food Program (WFP), more than a million people are suffering from acute hunger. Indeed, the consequences have become so severe that in some areas, level five on the WFP’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale has already been reached, which corresponds to famine. That level is generally only reached in warzones when parties to the conflict shut off access to food supplies.
The WFP’s deputy director in the country, Arduino Mangoni, said in November that the situation was "maybe the first climate change famine on earth," a comment that received attention around the world. A group of international experts recently came to a different conclusion, arguing that the situation has been caused by regional weather fluctuations and that climate change likely only plays a subsidiary role. For the region’s residents, of course, the difference doesn't much matter.
Riverbeds in the region have dried up, though residents are still able to find small amounts of water by digging beneath the surface.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
And no matter what the ultimate cause of the current drought might be, Madagascar is emblematic of a future in which extreme weather occurrences are going to become a lot more common. The African continent is particularly vulnerable – and is home to a population that is extremely dependent on regular harvests. All of which means that Madagascar is currently posing a question that will become one of the most important of this century: What happens when huge parts of the country you live in become uninhabitable?
It is mid-December and the adults are sitting close together on the concrete floor, children lying among them, most fast asleep. It isn’t totally clear how this group should be described: Refugees? Displaced? They didn’t leave their homes because of war or political oppression, but because it just refuses to rain.
When people started dying of hunger, Hanasoa decided to flee the drought-stricken region with her children. Here, she holds up one of them.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
"We left when the people in my family started to die," says Hanasoa, a young mother. First, she says, the elderly and the youngest children fell victim – that was six months ago. They died of exhaustion, hunger and thirst. "Even if we had something to eat, there wasn’t any water available for cooking," the 25-year-old recalls. So, they ultimately decided to go. "It is the land of our ancestors, countless generations lived there," says Hanasoa. "It broke my heart to leave it behind. But we had to protect the lives of our families."
They moved to the nearest, decent-sized city, called Ampanihy. The men here earn some money by selling water, filling yellow canisters at wells, some of which they've dug themselves, and selling it from the back of their small wooden carts. But the money isn’t enough to make ends meet. "We have a tin of rice per day, for seven family members," Hanasoa says. The children doze as she speaks. They haven’t laughed or played for a long time – joy is the first thing that falls victim to hunger.
Southern Madagascar has gone through a dry period of two years.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
Around 90 percent of the people here in the south of this vast island live below the poverty line, the highest such value in the world. Northern Madagascar, and the verdant green islands favored by tourists, are far away – and the government is largely absent here as well. For decades, the region has been neglected, the roads hardly exist at all anymore and for most residents, the only way to survive is through subsistence farming. The region has a semi-desert climate, and the dry periods are long and unrelenting. Droughts aren’t uncommon at all.
There is even a name here for periods of hunger caused by drought. The word is "kere," and you can hear it everywhere. This time, though, the kere is different – an anomaly that, statistically at least, only happens once every 135 years. Yet this is the second such drought since 1990.
Heavy rains in recent weeks have triggered repeated flooding in the Madagascar capital of Antananarivo, with officials announcing 34 deaths on Monday and over 50,000 displaced. The precipitation has provided some relief in the south as well. Still, it is doubtful whether it will be enough, since many residents were suffering so badly that they used up all their money and don’t have enough to buy seeds.
This is supposed to be a farm field, but with no rain, the farmers are unable to plant.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
Hans Vikoler, emergency coordinator for the World Food Program, described the dry spell as "devastating" back in December. "I have seen a lot in the last three decades, but this has surprised me." And he’s also not sure if perhaps he might be part of the problem.
The Search for Sustainable Solutions
It is a rather shocking image. Mothers and their children, their bony shoulders testament to the hunger from which they are suffering, are lined up in the village square beneath makeshift shelters. The children look apathetic, hardly reacting to external stimuli. But when the large, white WFP vehicles show up with their gigantic antenna, a group of women starts dancing. "The WFP is wonderful," they sing. But the joy doesn’t last long, at least not for all of them.
"The correct, long-term approach is certainly not that of distributing free humanitarian aid, as we are doing here," says a resigned Vikoler of WFP. Thus far, they have gone through their standard repertoire: Food rations for those in need along with unconditional cash handouts for tens of thousands of those affected. But how long can such an emergency last? Two years? Three years? Ten years? And how long can the Malagasy government continue to receive millions in aid money even as it neglects the starving south?
"It is high time that we start thinking about how we can shift to more sustainable solutions," agrees Pasqualina Disirio, the country director for WFP. But she also concedes that it is "much more difficult to raise money for such proposals." The EU flag is seen frequently on the sides of the white aid vehicles belonging to the myriad international organizations operating in Madagascar. A cynic might claim that the wealthy donors from the Global North are quicker to open their wallets in response to photos of children with distended stomachs than for projects aimed at preventing hunger from developing in the first place.
Sija Fanomeza is once again able to cook food for her family thanks to cash handouts. Such aid, however, is not a sustainable solution.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
There is, to be sure, little doubt that the aid is badly needed. But questions about the most effective form of aid remain – doubts that also plague Jean-Louis Rault from the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe. Rault’s group distributes cash to households in southern Madagascar that have been hit the hardest. "I’m not sure if we are achieving something positive here in the long term," Rault says. "We’re merely keeping people alive."
Sija, a 27-year-old mother of five, lives with her children in a small wooden lean-to. She is one of those who has received money from Welthungerhilfe. "Without the money, our lives would be even worse than they are," she says. "We wouldn’t have anything." Now, though, she says, they are once again able to buy water and to eat twice a day. But what does the future hold? "I used to produce and sell charcoal," Sija says. "But now, I’m too exhausted for such work." But then a Welthungerhilfe aid worker asks an interesting question: "You’re not working anymore because you are now receiving aid?" Sija merely grins. She doesn’t need to say more.
The aid organizations are definitely saving lives, there is no question about that. But the system is reaching its limits and the situation remains hopeless. Welthungerhilfe is hoping to shift its focus to digging new wells and refurbishing old ones to provide more sustainable assistance. But the technical hurdles standing in the way are high, first and foremost the fact that wells must be deeper than ever to strike water, sometimes several dozen meters. The German aid organization is also hoping to use new forecasting models in the future to detect looming droughts at an early stage and release aid money before famine has struck.
In Lafibato, the solution to the crisis comes out of a wooden box. It is secured with three padlocks, with keys divided up between three different people. You can’t be too careful, since the box contains a lot of money. The project is called Mahavotse, which translates to: "It can save you.”
Saving as a community in Lafibato, a kind of communal savings bank.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
The idea is simple and is used in other countries as well: A group of village residents save as much money as they can afford and place it in the box each week. Today is deposit day and a dozen women are sitting in a circle around the box. First, one person counts the contents of the box. The equivalent of 446 euros have thus far been collected, a fortune in this region.
A well-established ritual then follows: Members of the community bank may apply for a loan. To do so, they must explain to the others what they plan to do with the money, and then it is put to a vote. If the majority is in favor, the money is paid out. Each community bank member may only borrow up to three times what he or she has paid into the fund, a kind of grassroots savings bank. The villagers of Lafibato have been pursuing the strategy for a year now as a possible pathway out of the crisis.
Tsifosainy was able to plant a small garden thanks to the community savings project, but it hasn't proven to be enough to earn extra money.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
Tsifosainy’s loan is growing nicely, with the fruits of her savings sprouting out of the ground. She bought seeds with the money she took from the community bank and material for a small fence. She initially wanted to grow enough vegetables to be able to sell her produce at the market and earn a regular income. But hunger got the best of her. "I ate my project," says the 60-year-old. She did, however, put aside part of her harvest to be able to pay back her loan, seeing it as a point of honor. She would rather have a grumbling stomach than bring shame to herself in the village.
Even if her business plan didn’t turn out as she had hoped, the project was still a success for Tsifosainy. "It kept me alive," she says – without becoming dependent on food rations from the aid organizations. She now shares space in her garden with several other women in the village, with each assigned a small section and a day on which they are allowed to water their plants – otherwise there isn’t enough water to go around. The plants are once again thriving.
Zaimena was even able to open a small shop with the money he borrowed from the community fund, and has begun making a profit.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
Others have used money from the community savings bank to buy cattle, open a small shop and even start a café. Many projects have failed, but some have been successful. In other countries in southern Africa, experience has shown that such microcredits can lead to debt overload. "But if we stick together, we’ll be able to stay here," says Tsifosainy. "We wouldn’t be able to do it on our own. And I don’t want to leave."
Taming the Dunes
A strong wind is blowing in Faux Cap, at the very southern tip of the island. It blows the sand into your eyes and mouth, and is even enough to cover up homes in the area. Tolisoa, the village elder, is standing on a dune and pointing down. "That’s where our village used to be," he says. "The sand has even swallowed up our graves. We have already had to move three times. We lost everything."
The sand dunes have turned green and erosion has been stopped.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
There is hope that they won’t have to move again. With help from the aid organization Catholic Relief Service, they have transformed the sandy dunes into a checkered green landscape. Sisal and ground plants have stabilized the sandy soil and can help prevent further erosion. And sisal can be harvested and sold to earn a bit of money – or they can use it themselves as building material.
With the plants flourishing on the dunes have also brought bees, with honey turning into an additional source of income. "First, we supplied emergency aid here in the village," says Tolotra Tsiarena of the Catholic Relief Service. "But then we developed long-term measures, and it was worth it." Down below, at the foot of the dunes, they have now established small fields, protected from the wind. "Now, at least we are prepared for when the rain comes," says Tolisoa.
Tognesoa, a farmer at the southern tip of Madagascar, has switched to planting crops that don't need much water.Foto: Njaka Rajaonisaona / DER SPIEGEL
Others have begun adopting the dune concept as well. A few hundred meters away, a farmer named Tognesoa is digging into the hard, sandy ground of his field, dust rising with every blow. He has built up protection from the wind around his field and he has also shifted from just planting corn to sowing a number of different crops that need little water.
That ensures that if one species doesn’t make it, he still has a plan B or C. His sweet potatoes have already started to come up, even if they are tiny. But it is enough to fill up the children on some days. "But if it doesn’t rain soon, these plants will die as well. It’s almost as if God has given up on us," he says.
The World Food Program is also trying to convince farmers to shift to crops that are better able to survive the arid conditions. It is a lengthy and laborious process, but it is often the only pathway available. Aid organizations, after all, have come to believe that because of global warming, conditions in southern Madagascar will remain challenging for the foreseeable future.
"People should settle in areas where circumstances are better," says Pasqualina Disirio, the local WFP coordinator. "And we should only invest in areas where conditions are actually promising." She dreams of a kind of African Israel, with irrigation and industry – a dream that seems a long way away at the moment.
As such, Madagascar could become a case study for the rest of the world: What can be done when extreme weather events occur more often and when the land becomes infertile? There isn’t much time left to find the answers.
With additional reporting by Ange Peers
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.