Shifting from disaster response to preparedness in Madagascar

Cheneso was the first of the year’s seasonal tropical cyclones to strike Madagascar in January 2023. After making landfall on the east of the Indian Ocean Island, Chesano swept across the country to reach the northwestern Boeny Region and the region’s  capital, Mahajanga. Throughout most of the year, Mahajanga is a tranquil fishing and trading port popular with both Malagasy and foreign tourists. Perched on the picturesque Betsiboka estuary against a hinterland of rolling savannah plains and hills, its pristine beaches face the Mozambique Channel. But Cheneso, and later the more powerful Cyclone Freddy, delivered havoc to this tourist paradise in the form of torrential rains and severe winds. Rivers broke their banks, sending torrents of water towards the coast and the city. The flooding affected thousands of homes across six districts in the region.    

But local authorities say they felt better prepared for this year’s cyclone season than in previous years. As the Prefect of Mahajanga and Co-Chair of the Regional Disaster Risk and Management Committee (CR-GRC), Lahanaina Ravelomahay put it: 

“We now have stocks of provisions for distribution from the regional outpost of the BNGRC [National Office for Risk and Disaster Management], with tents to house disaster victims and two motorised rescue dinghies to respond to flooding and evacuations. We have also learnt to inform the population with alerts starting at least two days before a cyclone” – Lahanaina Ravelomahay, Prefect of Mahajanga and Co-Chair of the Regional Disaster Risk and Management Committee (CR-GRC).”

Another positive development in the realm of disaster risk reduction (DRR) relates to at-risk populations such as persons with disabilities (PWD). According to Ianjasoa Razafindratsita, the Boeny Region’s representative for Humanity and Inclusion (HI), an international NGO, PWD’s “had not participated in the development of DRR management plans in the past, but now there is inclusivity, where they are integrated with and part of the DRR process, and the beneficiaries gain from their actions in collaboration with other partners”.  

Cooperation between local associations working with PWD and the Malagasy Red Cross has also borne fruit in a way that advances DRR. Fidy Rafidimanantsoa, who heads the Collectif des Organisations des Personnes Handicapées, a grouping of several PWD associations, explained that “we have worked with NGOs to provide them with the location of most at risk persons, who are now prioritized for evacuation to temporary accommodation sites” when hazards such as cyclones occur. 

CARE International, an international NGO, has also seen its DRR activities evolve. 

“Our support for improved governance and capacity building has benefited from simulation training about community-level risk and disaster management,” – Ranto Rabarimanana, CARE’s representative in Boeny.

Such management has “seen major improvements, with local awareness and community mobilization through the enhancement of local rescue teams coordinated by village chiefs”. These DRR projects are supported by the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid which have supplied communities with equipment including locally made canoes to facilitate emergency evacuations, especially for the most at-risk members of communities. 

One Boeny location that is particularly exposed to the damage natural hazards can cause is Ambalavola, a settlement of some 4,200 inhabitants next to the Caimains river on the outskirts of Mahajanga. A lack of infrastructure, such as drainage canals, means Ambalavola is often inundated in times of heavy rains that, once they dissipate, leave the area dotted with pools of stagnant mosquito-infested water.  

Yet even here DRR is on the march. 

“Communication is the basis of success for members of the ELS, who use the megaphones in their new early warning kits provided by CARE, and whose messages are subsequently relayed by word of mouth,” – Adriano Rakotovao, Head of the municipality. 

“Early warnings and preventative actions by local authorities in cooperation with police, gendarmerie and the fire brigade have made a difference,” he added. 

Communication within the town and further afield across the Boeny Region is further assisted by local radio, including the very popular JRDB station. “We not only transmit on our FM stations to Mahajanga but also as far as 150 kilometres away to isolated villages, and we have the autonomy of solar power, so no power cuts for us, which means we can get the alerts out and people can stay in contact with us on out hotline numbers,” explained JRDB journalist Sergio Randrianasolo. 

Through the coordination and support of Boeny’s Regional Directorate for the Population, Social Protection and Promotion of Women (DRPPSF), various local associations have now expanded and orientated their social activities to DRR in recent years.   

Anna Soatsara, a member of the KB8M women’s association, said, “we now encourage women to take precautionary measures before cyclones arrive, especially families living illicitly within the floodplains of Mahajanga with high risk of flooding.” 

“This includes recommendations to listen to alerts on local radio and television, having some provisions ready including drinking water, and storing their valuables and documents in a safe place,” she added. 

Tina Rakotondramora, a member of the Youth Association in Mahajanga and a DRPPSF volunteer explained that “members of our association decided to work with the DRPPSF, as we realized we could play an important role in spreading important information from the authorities to our communities, especially people living in areas at risk from flooding, and it would cost us nothing to do it”.

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