Water, Africa’s Gold: Climate change, deforestation behind Madagascar’s water scarcity

Madagascar, though blessed with abundant water, has recently undergone a change in its hydrological cycle, due to global warming, leading to drought and famine

By Rivonala Razafison
Published: Monday 24 January 2022

Fetra R and his wife have, for months, ensured water for households out of the state-owned electricity and water company Jirama’s clients’ network in Madagascar's capital. Photo: Rivonala RazafisonFetra R and his wife have, for months, ensured water for households out of the state-owned electricity and water company Jirama’s clients’ network in Madagascar's capital. Photo: Rivonala Razafison

Madagascar, the world’s fourth-largest island, located just across the Mozambique Channel from the coast of mainland Africa, became notorious late last year after water became more expensive than food in the country.

This was acutely felt in the country’s drought-hit southern regions. And is still being felt. 

Twenty litres of water are priced at Ariary (Ar)2,000-Ar4,000 (Rs 37-Rs 75) — almost the half of a daily salary for a poor peasant — outside the regional capital city of Ambovombe, according to local businessman Tsimanaoraty Paubert.

Many in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo and its suburbs risk their lives to access water for basic human needs. “I hardly sleep at night. I have to stay awake till midnight in order to collect water at the drinking fountain near my home,” local photojournalist Hervé Leziany said.

Water has become a luxury in his neighbourhood located in the western suburbs of the country’s main city. It is only available between 11 pm and 2 am.

In the eastern suburbs of Antananarivo, some wake up at 1-2 am to fetch water at the only community-managed well on a downhill marsh where locals have come to for years.

“The stock is not sufficient for everyone. If you are late, you have to wait for the water level in the facility to rise again before getting the chance to fill up your cans. The well dries up quickly and takes hours to replenish itself,” Fetra R complained on December 20, 2021.

The 25-year-old man and his wife have, for months, ensured water for households out of the state-owned electricity and water company Jirama’s clients’ network.

They earn Ar500 (Rs 10) for every 20 litres they deliver, against Ar300 (Rs 6) previously. They now intend to scale up their price because of the challenges they face due to the mounting water scarcity. “I intend to put it at Ar700 (Rs 13) if the problem continues.”

Water unavailability pushed upset students at the Antananarivo University campus to take to the streets and clash with the police in November 2021.

Social media users, for their part, constantly get angry with the government. The company Jirama is accused of being unable to deliver quality service. Its water appears to be unsafe, observe civil society organisations who voice their concerns about the soaring socioeconomic hardships and precarious conditions across the island.

Many try to avail water in whatever way they can, mostly from the insalubrious water sources in Antananarivo’s plains and elsewhere for domestic purposes. Day and night, those having cars collect stagnant water on riverbanks kilometres away from the city.

In the rural areas, carts, motorcycles, bicycles and any means of transport alike are used for the same purpose. Meanwhile, farmers, especially rice growers, are on the alert.

“The same quantity could be obtained at Ar500 (Rs 10). But the resale results in the water’s price rise at the final consumers’ level,” a source said. Thus, the poorest go away outside the town to collect from puddles of water on the road after the rare times it rains.

Why Madagascar?

The current drought and water situation across Madagascar, one of the world’s poorest countries, appears to be paradoxical.

The available renewable water resources annual per capita were averaged at 23,057 cubic metres from 2001 to 2013 and were 13,169 cubic metres in 2013, according to the outcome of the World Bank-funded natural capital accounting presented in 2016. Such indices were said to be among the highest in the world.

The country annually receives 809 billion cubic metres of rainfall when the surface flow is estimated at 258 billion cubic metres and the stock is 28 billion cubic metres according to a governmental document.

Madagascar’s national water assets are made of 21 billion cubic metres of surface water and 0.106 billion cubic metres of groundwater. The tailwater is about six billion cubic metres of surface water and 6.6 billion cubic metres of groundwater.

“The current disruption in the water resource availability in Madagascar is due to a significant shift in the water cycle. The issue is being frequently felt in the highlands,” Herinjanahary Ralaiarinoro, head of the hydrology unit service within the country’s meteorology department, said.

“The rainy season has become shorter than before. It stops raining as of March while the heavy rains fall in January,” he added.

This short time, he explained, was not enough for the aquifers to be fed. “A shortened wet season means prolonged drought. The water availability declines as of April and this continues until the next rainy season which is delayed year after year because of low rate of atmospheric humidity, which affects the clouds’ formation,” Ralaiarinoro said.

The water scarcity is likely to amplify in the future.

“Like in 2019-2020, the country is now experiencing a prolonged dry season related to the La Nina phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean. The rainfalls are delayed. The onset of the rainy season is somewhat dry. We have the first rains only in December-January,” Mamiarisoa Anzèla Ramarosandratana, head of the climate adaptation section within the meteorology department, said.

She added that the current prolonged drought was the logical continuation of the low rainfall registered in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. For the last two years, Madagascar received only around 60% of its usual average rainfall, the lowest in 30 years. “This would furthermore accentuate the water scarcity in 2021-2022,” Ramarosandratana warned.

The government through the company Jirama, has launched cloud seeding operations to cope with the drought-induced water scarcity. “We have conducted over thirty operations since November,” Miakadaza Harinjaka Randriamahandry, a meteorological technician, said.

Localities in the Malagasy highlands areas benefited from the initiative. For example, it rained in Antananarivo, among others, days ahead of Christmas. However, the high temperature without rains came back just a few days later.

The objective of the Malagasy government to attain 100 per cent drinking water access rate by 2030 — against 43 per cent currently — would be a utopia without long-term measures. Besides global warming, the change in the hydrology cycle in the country is probably linked to its high rate of deforestation too.

“Without forests, we have lowered humidity in the atmosphere. We need to maintain the existing forest cover in order to let precipitation infiltrate the ground,” Ralaiarinoro said.

Since 2019, the country has aimed to plant 60 million trees per year in an attempt to reconstruct its green architecture and restore ecological balance.

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