Cacti. Picture: THE TIMES
Cacti. Picture: THE TIMES

Ankilibevahavola — Every morning, residents of this village in southern Madagascar’s Amboasary Sud district set off on an eight-hour round-trip walk to collect water from the nearest river.

Along the way, some give up and instead use plastic jerry cans to scoop up whatever they can find in potholes along the road – muddy liquid aid workers jokingly call "chocolate water".

This region of Madagascar has been chronically poor for decades, but a series of droughts, which government officials say are driven by climate change, have left close to a million people struggling to cope.

Drought is increasing the risk of malnutrition and could cause deaths in children younger than five, half of whom already suffer from stunting, said Norohasina Rakotoarison, a spokeswoman for Madagascar’s ministry of the environment.

In the south of the island, where many people farm for a living, the rainy season is getting shorter and shorter, they say. Rains that once stretched from October to March now fall only between December and February.

A recent El Nino event aggravated already dry conditions, driving hunger not only in Madagascar but across Southern Africa.

That El Nino has now ended, but many families have not recovered and harsh weather continues, they say.

"The air is more violent. The wind is very strong," said Soja Voalahtsesylvain, the chief of Ankilibevahavola. Around the area, "there’s no production because the land is very dry".

"It’s our everyday life now," he said. "We wait for the rain because our main issue is lack of water. We don’t know when it will come."

In Madagascar, nine in 10 people live on less than $2 a day, according to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef). Poverty is even worse in the dry south.

Bumpy roads last paved in colonial days impede the delivery of aid and mean even emergency transport is difficult.

Acute malnutrition

Hoasie, a woman in her 40s who goes by one name, said she was forced to carry her three-year-old son 20km to the nearest hospital in November, after large bumps broke out on his body. It turned out he was suffering from acute malnutrition and a lack of protein. But the drought makes it difficult to feed him better, she said.

"We’re farmers, so when there is no rain we have no crops," Hoasie said.

In September, construction began on a much-needed pipeline that will carry clean water much closer to 13 thirsty communities in this area of southern Madagascar.

The pipeline, funded by Madagascar’s ministry of water and Unicef and expected to be working by March, will provide household water for about 46,000 people.

"It’s an emergency to complete this pipeline," said Heriniaina Rakotomalala, a civil engineer who works with Unicef on the project.

For now, in Ankilibevahavola, home to about 3,000 people, families are trying to get by using a traditional lending system, in which poor families borrow water or food from neighbours and eventually pay it back when the rains come.

But even this has become difficult.

"Because of drought every livelihood has gone," said Aova Soatoatse, who has 13 children. She said her family was now eating wild cactus plants to provide the bulk of their diet.

Looking for cash to buy food, they sold their wooden shelter and moved into a smaller one, but the paltry money bought food only sufficient for two days.

"Then the money was finished," she said. Now they live crammed together into a one-bedroom wooden shack.

The family still has six chickens, but the small plot of land they own is steadily decreasing in size as they sell off bits to buy more food.

The family isn’t the only one facing hard times.

"There’s no food and people are hungry. We only eat cactus seed and fruit. We cook it and boil it with water," said village resident Rafoava Ravaonimira.

She said it was hardest to explain to the youngest children why they could only have one meal a day. "The older the kids grow, the more they understand."

Unicef officials say there are 850,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance in Madagascar, including 391,000  children.

‘Silent crisis’

Jean-Benoît Manhes, Unicef’s deputy representative in Madagascar, called the situation a "silent crisis", which gets little attention because of the island’s lack of geopolitical significance.

"[It’s] a French-speaking island in an English-speaking region. With [something like a] cyclone you can take nice before and after photos," he said.

But with drought, "it just gets a little bit drier each year", he said.

He said it’s important to understand that climate change is not the only threat to food security. Slash-and-burn agriculture techniques, particularly the burning of forests — which when left standing can stabilise rainfall — were also playing a role, he said.

"There’s climate change, but human action reinforces it. In the south they burn forests for charcoal and agriculture. That reinforces climate change," he said.

Meanwhile, many families in the impoverished south with large families are faced with a hard decision: which of their children to feed.

"Families may prioritise giving food to the children who can work to help, leaving less to the smallest children who are already malnourished," Manhes said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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