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Fishermen in Mahajanga, Madagascar
Fishermen in Mahajanga, Madagascar
Sébastien Hervieu

TOLIARA — The heat and the years have taken a heavy toll on Rebokane Mahatsanga's frail, scaly-skinned body. Squatting, almost prone, among a few bad-looking ears of corn on his patch of land, he doesn't quite know his age anymore. "I think I'll be 100 soon," he says, his eyes half-closed. People don't really celebrate birthdays around here. We're told that's "more of an ex-French-colonizer sort of thing."

A few kilometers south of Toliara, in the small village of Bekoake, where there's no water or electricity, this farmer doesn't recall the year 2013 or the name of the tropical cyclone Haruna either. But he remembers the devastation. That morning, when the cyclone came, he'd "never seen anything like it before," he says in dialect. "The wave of water came, and it destroyed all the crops and all the houses. I had to shelter on top of a rampart and wait until the evening for the water level to decrease."

During that month of February 2013, Haruna killed 26 people in this region. Dozens of people lost their homes, often rudimentary huts made of wood, straw and dry mud. Wells, the only access to drinkable water in some villages, were polluted, causing epidemics among the population.

One-third of Madagascar's sixth biggest city — located on the southwestern coast, 900 kilometers from the capital Antananarivo — was under water. The embankment protecting the area from the Fiherenana River collapsed not far from Rebokane Mahatsanga's land. The farmer knows what happened. "A dragon laid on it, and it ceded." Listening to the elder, some of the villagers nod their heads in agreement, while younger people just smile.

A high-risk location

Stuck between the Mozambique Channel and the Indian Ocean, Madagascar is where cyclones and tropical storms born on the Western Australian coast come to die. As many as 17 of Madagascar's 22 regions are listed as high risk. With global warming, the frequency of cyclones hasn't increased (three times a year on average), but meteorologists say they're stronger than they used to be.

"We've repaired the dilapidated embankment, but I wouldn't be very relaxed if a new Haruna should come, because we just did what we could with what little we had," says Lydore Solondraza, the regional head of the territorial administration.

Sitting under the official portrait of Malagasy President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, democratically elected in early 2014 after five years of political instability following a coup d'état, Solondraza ponders whether to say more. "We are being abandoned a bit by the central power," he says. "We're far from the capital, you know."

He managed to obtain a single inflatable Zodiac boat and the installation of three sensors upstream. "If the water level rises, I automatically get a text message and I immediately launch the prevention operations," he says. In earl 2015, tropical storm Fundi hit the Toliara region, killing another five people.

The local Red Cross tries to do what it can to compensate for the lack of state support. "We do simulation exercises in 36 villages and six towns in the region, and we will build 10 shelters," Lucianno Rafalimonona says, a glass of papaya juice in his hand. When we ask him to comment on the efforts being made by local authorities, he avoids mentioning corruption. "Sometimes, we're not too sure where the money ends up," he simply says.

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No resources for mitigation

Madagascar's climate equation is a conundrum. It's one of the poorest countries on the planet and considered the third most exposed to extreme climate risks, which further hinders its development.

"Our greenhouse gas emissions are marginal on a global scale," says Hery Rakotondravony, head of the national office for climate change coordination. "But we're facing the harmful effects of the actions of polluting countries, and they don't want to help us."

Madagascar emitted 2.1 million tons of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013, a drop in the ocean compared to France and its 344 million tons. At the COP21 climate change conference in Paris, the Malagasy negotiator suggested that it will cost $42 billion, almost four times Madagascar's GDP, for the African country to be able to adapt and ease the effects of climate change.

"The rainy season used to begin towards the end of October, until March. But lately it's been mostly concentrated in January and February," says Razafisoa Ratalata, the traditional leader of the village of Ambiky. "We don't know anymore when to sow, which makes it more difficult to harvest." Depending on the crops, the harvesting calendar is one to three months off.

Rainfalls are also heavier, increasing the risk of floods. The local leader walks on the earthen levee next to the mouth of the Onilahy River. To the right, verdant rice fields, to the left, baiboa, a mixture of alluvium and earth carried by the water flows when the river bursts its banks. He stops in the shadow of a tree.

"Our community built this in 2008 thanks to World Bank money. The goal was to stop this sedimentation because of deforestation and erosion upstream, and then prevents us from growing crops," he says. "The water can go over the levee, but at least the sand and all the rest are blocked on the other side." In 2013, Haruna drowned the place under 1.5 meters of water.

North of Toliara, another jewel of the Madagascar's biodiversity is under threat: 300 acres of mangrove spread along seven kilometers. The dugout canoe zigzags among the trees. "The Fiherenana River brings the sediments here, but there's also the open sea wind that pushes the dunes towards the mangrove and threatens to suffocate it," says Lera Danhaive, the head of Belgian NGO Honko.

Sisals appear on top of a sandy hill that's partly pouring at the mangrove's feet. "We're planting as may sisals as we can to try and prevent the dunes from moving further," the young woman explains. And to repair the damage inflicted by years of deforestation, the small team has also replanted 60 acres of mangrove since 2008.

Manmade damage to coral reefs

"All of these sediments, not to mention devastating cyclones, have also weakened the coral reef," warns Danhaive, a biologist. "The dirty water, as well as the rising sea levels, are preventing the reef from receiving enough daylight to develop." This is the world's third longest reef, spreading along 20 kilometers. "The warming of the ocean threatens to whiten the Toliara coral reef, and at the same time, this evolution can help develop the reef on the southernmost part of the island, where it suffers from too cold waters," notes Paubert Mahatante, from Toliara's Institute of Halieutics and Marine Sciences.

The academic, who's finishing a thesis on the region's adaptation to climate change, issues a warning. "The trend today is to conclude that everything that's happening is linked to climate change. But we should be careful. Even though it's often an aggravating factor, it's not always the main cause."

Instead, traditional octopus, mollusk and crustacean fishermen may be to blame. Nente Mahay, who we met near the village of Botsibotsiky, collected in his bucket huge shellfish that look like hermit crabs. He picked them up from the reef, four meters under water, with his mask and snorkel. "The location is deteriorating," the 18-year-old says. "Some fishermen overturn stones and hit them with stakes to find shells, and by doing so they prevent them from reproducing." When we ask him if anything can be done, he replies that "there's been an awareness campaign, but there's more and more people here, and they're hungry."

Sitting on a Toliara terrace, Paubert Mahante shows us a graph on his computer. "See that curve? For 30 years, with climate change, the wind tends to become more and more permanent, which affects the coastline," he says.

The inhabitants on the Sarodrano peninsula, a one-hour drive south of Toliara, know this only too well. Vierge, who has no family name, must be at least 70 years old. "In my family, three of us have had to rebuild our houses elsewhere because of the sand that was engulfing them," she says. On her rooftop, made of sheets of metal, she placed big stones to avoid any bad surprises. But the sand is once again accumulating all around her precarious house.

A few hundred meters from there, Andrea Baccaredda Boy had to move his restaurant two years ago, even though it had been built on stilts. But the Italian prefers to see this philosophically. "Elsewhere in the world, they try to tame nature. Here, we can't afford that."

Warming temperatures

Madagascar's south, the country's driest region, is going to feel hotter and hotter. Temperatures are expected to rise between 1.6 and 2.6 °C by the middle of the century. Worse, the dry season will be longer, a terrifying prospect given that 30% to 60% of the local population already regularly suffers from hunger.

We take a long ride on a dusty and bumpy road until we reach the village of Ampotake and its 280 inhabitants, driving past tombstones that give the impression that people are richer dead than alive. The huge community reservoir is empty. Rains here only bring an average of 500 millimeters of water a year. The rainy season isn't due for a few weeks, and Kireta Madiotsara is worried. This farmer takes us to his manioc field of barely one acre. The soil is red, the leaves scarce. "The rains come less and less often. I'm scared I'll lose my crops," he says.

But why does it rain less? "People don't respect taboos and traditions anymore," says 20-year-old Kireta Madiotsara, who could only go to school for two years and doesn't know the current president's name. "Women wear shorts instead of skirts, and men are having their ears pierced. The good God isn't happy."

The villagers adapt to the new conditions. They are stocking up on water in a hole in a baobab tree so it doesn't evaporate. In October, when the dry season ends, temperatures can reach 40 °C (104 °F).

In Betioky, the district capital and terminus of bush taxis, Monjes Randrianantenaina interrupts his early afternoon nap to show us a large notebook. "Since 1933, the rains have diminished by 27% to 33% in this area," the local meteorologist reads. With three-quarters of the population living off farming, he fears the consequences of this climate change. "The locals sell more and more of their cattle and belongings. They're using too many natural resources, and some of them are migrating, which creates conflicts with other communities."

International NGOs, often with no general strategy or plan, are offering solutions: to dig more wells, to boost productivity with a sustainable parcel management, to use seeds that can better resist droughts, to develop other sources of revenues than agriculture.

In Antananarivo, two young Malagasy are getting excited at the headquarters of the National Bureau of Risk and Disaster Management. With their fingers, they trace lines on the Google Earth map on their computer screen. "We could divert this river flow to bring it here thanks to the difference in level, or build a pipeline of a few hundred kilometers," says Sitraka Ranveliarivao. "We'd just need a little money, but it'd quickly pay for itself, and it would change people's lives!"

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