Drought in Madagascar: how can communities adapt to climate change?

A Q&A with natural resources management specialist Patrick Ranjatson

The climate of Madagascar is varied, with a tropical coast, temperate interior and arid south. Frank Vassen, Flickr
29 March 2021

Southern Madagascar has been experiencing ongoing drought since 2019, and the devastating consequences are pushing local communities to the brink. Roughly 1.3 million people – more than one in three people in the area– have become food insecure in what the World Food Program (WFP) describes as “famine-like conditions,” compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In response, the UN and Malagasy government have issued a flash appeal for USD 75.9 million in aid to avert a humanitarian crisis. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), many southern provinces are currently in IPC Phase 3, with some dipping into Phase 4, which indicates high levels of acute malnutrition.

To understand why Madagascar’s drought is so long-lasting and consequential, Landscape News discussed the crisis with Patrick Ranjatson, a professor at the University of Antananarivo’s forestry school, where he researches local natural resources management and migration.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Ranjatson
Photo courtesy of Patrick Ranjatson

Which areas of Madagascar are the most affected by this drought, and how serious is it?

The most affected area is in what we call the “Deep South.” This is really the extreme south of Madagascar – not the southeast, because the southeast is part of the eastern humid ecoregion, so it’s not actually concerned with drought. And it’s not the southwest of Madagascar, which is arid, but it is also close to the sea. What we’re talking about is the Ambovombe area, which is administratively called the Androy region and is far from the sea. This part of Madagascar is traditionally very dry and strongly affected by drought.

What has led to this recurrent issue?

I think to fight this drought, we actually need to tackle the main problems, including slash-and-burn agricultural practices that exacerbate the naturally dry climate in the south. This deforestation may be worsened by the rising importance of land as a status symbol rather than the traditional cattle. I think the government doesn’t have the means and is not able to tackle this problem alone. 

I also know that some NGOs are trying to tackle other areas, such as maize production. Maize in the south is a cash crop, and southern Madagascar is known for its massive maize production. But it seems that maize production is declining, probably because the maize season doesn’t correspond with the changes incurred by climate change. So now some projects are trying to go back to find out which crops native people used to grow, and they are trying to promote those crops again. I think this is a way in which we can eventually cope with drought and climate change in the south. 

What actions have been taken on drought mitigation in Madagascar? 

In Madagascar, we have many NGOs, and we have also the World Food Program, which are all working in the south to help. But I think that the measures that have been taken do not deal with the roots of the problem, such as deforestation for agriculture. So some, for instance, are providing food or milk for school children every day during the school year. This is a good thing, I agree with that, but I think that this is not sustainable as it doesn’t prevent the problem in the first place. 

Some NGOs, however, have tried to find some better and more sustainable ways to indirectly fight the drought and improve people’s vulnerability. For instance, one effort identified a native tree species that is getting scarce because it is not for human use. Instead, the species is useful for animals, especially as cattle can feed on it as fodder. So the NGO found a way to mass-produce this tree species and then started to teach people how they can use it to restore forest areas. This kind of action is good, but this doesn’t come from the government. This comes from projects, especially those promoted by NGOs, and I think that this is really important.

How has climate change played into the current drought? 

Local people in the drought-stricken areas are really aware of the change in climate, to the extent that you might hear any person from the south saying that they have lots of life experience with drought and climate change. They may talk, for instance, about the rainfall period. They say that in the past it used to rain during this month and this other month, and now they’re saying that the rain is not coming regularly or that they hardly get rain. 

Agriculturists are particularly aware of this change and will tell you about their agricultural calendars. They would say that normally they used to grow cassava in a period, during a certain month, but that this is not the case anymore. So they are aware that, for instance, all the crops that they used to grow in the past don’t seem to really match the present situation in terms of rainfall periods.

I met recently with some agriculturalists from the south in a workshop about adaptation to climate change. When we discuss things with local people, often these sessions are not the most important because they are too formal. But when you have some time and have a drink with them or eat with them and have informal discussions, then you really hear what they think. And this is the reason why I do believe that they are really worried about climate change – not only because of the things that they say in formal meetings, but also from these informal discussions, in which they seem to be really aware of climate change and its impact on drought. 

How have the people of this region adapted to drought conditions?

When you go through the literature, you’ll see that people from this area are mainly called the Antandroy, which is an ethnic group, and they started to migrate because of drought from around the 1920s. They are used to living with drought, so migration is very common for them. Every year, some of the Antandroy people move to other parts of Madagascar to escape drought and find some better living conditions by working as agricultural workers for maize, often moving together with other members of the same village. But at the end of the day, they want to always be able to go back home, or at least send what they earn back to their motherland. So migration, I believe, is a way of life that they are used to. 


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