Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Africa, impresses with postcard-perfect views and “playful” lemurs. At the same time, it is the world’s fourth most vulnerable country to climate change, regularly hit by cyclones and droughts. Nearly 70 percent. The population here lives in extreme poverty. But the biggest problem is the lack of water, without it Madagascar, like any other place in such a situation, dies. The most dramatic situation is in the south of the island, which is why Polish Humanitarian Action has focused its efforts on these regions. I spoke with Margaret Klein about how PHA supports the indigenous people of Madagascar.

Agnieszka Hobot: Why have water problems in Madagascar increased in recent years?

Margaret Klein: Polish Humanitarian Action’s presence in Madagascar is linked to the crisis in the south of the island. Temporariness is usually associated with the word crisis. Here it is a protracted situation that is additionally little discussed in the media. The earthquake or flood we often see in the news is sudden and dramatic. The crisis in Madagascar is not sudden, but dramatic, stretched over time, and those affected have no voice. Where we work now there are very few state structures and NGOs or international organizations. PAH is opening up its strategies to French-speaking African countries such as Madagascar.

Madagascar has historically suffered from high water stress. It particularly affects the Androy and Atsimo-Atsinanana regions, where the rainy season can fail to appear for up to six years in good measure. From the dry season, during which it does not rain at all, we are entering the rainy season, which all farmers are waiting for. More than 90 percent. Communities here make a living from family farming or ranching. When the rain doesn’t come or there is too little of it for the crops to be sufficient, people are unable to cultivate the land. It is necessary to deliver food to the needy, and this in many cases is an impossible mission. The problem, for example, is the lack of roads, and the food that is brought is not only inadequate, but also very expensive and often of poor quality.

This is the situation in southern Madagascar in a nutshell. I will only add that in recent years droughts have also intensified due to demographic pressures. The island’s population has tripled over the past 25 years. These are very dynamic changes that involve water shortages and deforestation. The population, in order to prepare even the most modest meal, is usually condemned to lighting a campfire. Other energy sources are usually not available to them. More residents need more wood, so it is cutting down the dry forests of southern Madagascar, threatening its resurgence. This is one cause of deforestation. The other is a way of cultivating the land called slash-and-burn, or burning and clearing the land for farmland.

Logging and population pressures, combined with intensifying global climate change, are making rainy seasons increasingly unpredictable and less abundant, making it difficult for populations that depend on cultivating the land to survive.

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pic. PAH

A.H.: The difficult situation is due to the accumulation of several factors that the islanders are trying to cope with in some way. What, then, is the government’s attitude? Are roads or water intakes being built? Is this population really left to fend for themselves and can only rely on NGOs?

M.K.: The government of Madagascar, which is one of the 15 poorest countries in the world, is already subsidized half by international organizations at the basic budget level, not including the response to natural disasters. So in terms of state support, the investment potential is very low, not to say non-existent.

Drought in southern Madagascar now occurs every decade. These are prolonged, multi-year periods without rain or with little, insufficient rainfall. For that, cyclones occur on the other side of the island, causing floods and destroying homes and farmland. As you can see, the intensity of natural disasters in Madagascar is significant, and resources for responding to them are scarce. These are costs that even for OECD countries would be unaffordable, especially if disasters recur in each successive decade.

In summary, the state’s response depends not on the country’s GDP, but on external support. Domestic policymakers only indicate the region whose problems they will respond to.

As for the presence of government institutions or structures in southern Madagascar, it is, compared to other regions, low. There is no school network there, and the number of clinics is insufficient. In addition, their quality leaves a lot to be desired. There is not even a main road cutting through the area that is maintained. It is replaced by a comma between cacti – you can see which way to go, as cars go there frequently.

The European Union is currently working with the government to build a road from the coast to the capital of the Androy region, the one most affected by the drought, Ambovombe. This alone causes me to cover the 170 kilometers to our field office in 6 hours, not 8. Of course, if I don’t get stuck somewhere and nothing breaks. The fact is, however, that in the hinterland of this drought- and famine-stricken region, the road will not be there for a very long time to come.

A.H.: I wanted to ask about something that even intrigued me. In developed countries, the response to impoverishment and natural disasters is usually a drop in the birth rate, and in Madagascar there has been a huge increase. What factors are responsible for this? This is rarely discussed.

M.K.: Actually, this topic is not often raised. The birth rate in the world’s poorest countries is significant, while in those with high prosperity it is low. In many European countries, the ratio is being raised by immigrants, protecting them from the consequences that accompany aging populations.

In both highly developed countries and poorer ones, society is guided by logic. In our European context, we will be reducing the number of births due to the fact that we are not able to support a family, so in simple terms. That is, I have a small apartment – I need to have fewer children, because I can’t accommodate them, I need to have fewer children to be able to give them quality education. And in countries where I will always have a small house anyway and can never afford to educate my offspring because either there is no school at all or it costs too much, this fertility rate is driven by other factors. First, unfortunately, is the fact that a great many children die before the age of 5, and second, the lack of birth control.

It is colloquially said that children are Africa’s wealth. This is a rather idyllic take on the matter. This is largely due to cultural considerations. A woman often can’t get an education, can’t take gainful employment in a very narrow market, so her position is judged by whether and how many children she has. This is very difficult to understand for people who have developed a completely different view of the world, who grew up in completely different cultural conditions, in prosperity.

Having children is a great joy for these people, their life achievement. This is a completely different optic of looking at fertility, but also an economic argument. When someone is sick and one has to help in the fields or go far to fetch water or wood, work a great deal to have to get food for the day, then every pair of hands is needed.

A.H.: I wanted to go back to the question about water. What activities does PAH carry out to facilitate access for the people of Madagascar? I’ve heard about sand dams – it’s something we don’t know in Poland.

M.K.: In terms of water activities, PAH is working in southern Madagascar in two, soon three ways.

We are talking about an area where there are no flowing rivers as we understand them. On an annual basis, these are dry riverbeds where the water has accumulated in the carried sand. People enter such a trough and dig small holes to collect the water they need for drinking, for pets, and to wash themselves. We operate in an area with villages of 200 to 700 residents. To provide them with better quality water, where possible we dig surface wells, that is, wells up to 20 meters deep.

PAH has been dealing with this for the past two years. This is the simplest solution, supporting local activities, that is, local people themselves start digging for water, but they don’t have the know-how, they don’t have the resources to buy a hand or foot pump, and then the organization partners, providing support.

PAH is not involved in drilling (deep water intakes) at this point, which in this particular region is not the easiest solution. This is handled by UNICEF and UNDP, for example. These organizations are looking for a way to keep it sustainable in this particular area.

The next way to collect and replenish water is to collect rainwater. PAH will participate in the construction of domestic tanks. We will train local residents to be able to work independently and build such a domestic tank on their own in 4 days. With rainfall as low as it is in the region, they will not collect water all year round. Their task will only be to supplement household resources.

The crown project that PHA is implementing in the region is the sand dam. The organization has been working with Kenyans in the driest regions of their country for many years, and as a result, the technology is proven, efficient and promotes a good model of cooperation with local communities. As the first implementations took place 20 years ago, it is already known that they work for a long time, serve, do not deteriorate and are a solution that is viable for really poor communities. That is, where there are no funds for infrastructure repair, dams perform admirably.

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pic. PAH

A.H.: What does the construction of such a dam involve? What does it look like technologically?

M.K.: The technology of sand dams is that specialists in locating investments look for a place with good ground – impermeable rock. If it meets other, less crucial criteria, then a dam can be built there. There are many such places in southern Madagascar. Local people are involved in the work. It involves the collection of stones and rocks. To build a medium-sized dam you need about. 500 t, so it’s a huge job that will later provide them with a source of water, even in times of drought. Once the material is collected, a Kenyan expert arrives to help us organize the work and who passes on the know-how.

First we build the foundation. We dig into the impermeable rock and fill the resulting space with accumulated stones, gravel and cement. The local community is also learning the basics of construction in this way. Such regions are not about innovation in the sense of developed countries that already base their economies on the service sector. Here, the innovation is a solution that is able to perform its function, that is, to provide the best possible filtered water during periods of drought to the world’s poorest communities, i.e. those that are unable to allocate surplus income to water harvesting.

A.H.: Can such dams be built in a cascade, several on one river? Do you already have experience with such investments? For example, in Kenya.

M.K.: Any such investment should be analyzed in detail in the geographical and social context. General assumptions are not authoritative and it is difficult to make predictions based on them. An environmental analysis is needed. We try to approach our interference in a region as responsibly as possible, and even if the administration does not make exorbitant demands on us, we impose them on ourselves. We shape them in consultation with her. With the experience we have gained, we know that environmental impact analysis is necessary.

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Madagascar - drought in the lemur kingdom 1

A.H.: Please give some more tips for readers who ask themselves: how can I help?

M.K.: I invite you to visit our website. Tangible support includes donations to a specific cause or region, such as projects in Madagascar.

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