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Living in the cyclone belt is not easy

Cyclone Ivan tears across Madagascar.
(UNICEF Madagascar)

Every year the rains flood large parts of Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, displacing thousands of its poorest inhabitants. Now a combination of rapid urbanisation and increasingly violent cyclones as a result of climate change may threaten to bring increasing devastation to the city, say experts.

"Last year 20,000 people were displaced, which was more than in the 2007 cyclone season - every year the number increases," Dia Styvanly Soa, of the government's Office for National Disaster Management (BNGRC), told IRIN. "More and more people are moving to the city, and they are building their homes on the floodplain because they have nowhere else to go."

Andohatapenaka II is one of Antananarivo's lowest-lying districts; it is also home to some of the city's poorest inhabitants, and subject to chronic flooding. The first cyclones of the wet season, which lasts from December to April, have not even arrived yet.

"In 2006 and 2007 flooding was especially bad here," Henri Ramahatafandy, deputy chief of the district, told IRIN. "And already in 2008, 240 families have been affected by flooding - that's around 600 people."

Delphine and her family of eight rent a tiny shack, perched on a small patch of dry land just above the water of the surrounding floodplain, where rice is grown. Many of the houses have been built on stilts above open drains and stagnant pools of water.

''Last year 20,000 people were displaced, which was more than in the 2007 cyclone season - every year the number increases''

Living here is not easy. "I have been here for three years, and every year there is flooding," Delphine told IRIN. "We have already had to leave the house once this year. I left most of my possessions here, and there was no time to check that they were ok, so I lost some things. It is very difficult to live here."

The 2007-08 wet season was one of the most damaging on record in Madagascar. In February 2008, cyclone Ivan, one of the largest storms ever to hit the island, killed at least 83 people and left more than 200,000 homeless. Cyclones Fame, Jokwe and Ivan killed over 100 people and left 190,000 homeless.

Climate change impact

Madagascar's Meteorological Department has warned that the risk of more powerful tropical cyclones is higher this season. "There has been an increased intensity in cyclones as a result of climate change," Sahondrarelala Raveloaresoa, director of forecasting in the department told IRIN.

"In particular, this has been noticed in the north and northeast, and is likely to continue in future." Which means that while the average number of cyclones may remain the same, they are expected to be more destructive.

In November 2008, Xavier Leus, resident co-ordinator of the UN System in Madagascar, told IRIN that addressing climate change was vital in managing disasters in the country. "It is clear that in the context of climate change, Madagascar needs to prepare; we need to link disaster management to climate change."

The city is in a bowl

Antananarivo lies on a plateau in Madagascar's central mountainous region. "The city is in a bowl, and there are certain areas that are always going to be flooded because they are below the level of the water on the floodplain and we can't build in these places," Rajaonary Andriamasoandro of the city's Office for Urban Development told IRIN.

Rapid and unplanned urbanisation means many people have no choice. "The population of the city will be doubled in the next 20 to 25 years, and really, this is tomorrow. If you don't start planning to build the infrastructure to support this today, in the next 10 years you will have nothing," said Georges Lamoure, a city planner and advisor to the mayor.

"If we don't stop people building on the floodplain, things will get worse; this is a very big problem," said Styvanly Soa of BNGRC.

Three rivers cross the Antananarivo floodplain, where a complex network of drainage channels have been designed to carry water out of the city, but many of these are old and in a state of disrepair. In December 2007 a dam protecting a major drainage canal broke, displacing 420 people.

Two-fold impact

The impact of the cyclone season on the city's floodplain residents is two-fold: they are forced from their homes and into temporary camps when the floods come, and work becomes scarce.

"Most people here work in the informal sector. Many of the women wash clothes and the men are manual labourers, but during the flooding they can't find work and so they have no money," said Simone Rasoaremanga, a social worker at UNICEF, the UN children's fund:

"Some children end up begging in the city centre, and there is a major problem with children who are unable to go to school for long periods of time during the flooding." Children are also more vulnerable to waterborne diseases like diarrhoea, which is common during flooding.

Clean drinking water is also often hard to get; according to the UN, only 29 percent of people have access to clean drinking water. During the cyclone season, UNICEF works with the Malagasy government to provide water and sanitation in the temporary camps.

The coming cyclone season will bring more hardship to Delphine and her family. "Things will be the same - when the floods come we will move to the temporary camps, and when the water goes we will return home. If I could find some dry land to live on, I would move. But at the moment I am not hopeful."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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