Drawing a line in the sand as communities adapt to climate change

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UN News’s Daniel Dickinson travelled to Madagascar ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly, which is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, from 26 February, to ask people how they are coping.

Life is becoming increasingly challenging in the village of Zanavo Fagnalenga on the southernmost tip of Madagascar. Years of under-development, a series of humanitarian crises and the impact of climate change has pushed this village of several hundred people into poverty and has made it almost uninhabitable at times.

Small wood and grass triangular-shaped dwellings dot the dusty and arid landscape. A few villagers sell peanuts piled up in small rusty cans, and manioc are arranged in rows and available to anyone who can afford them.

The small amount of water that is available is dedicated to human consumption and to keeping a few crops alive on the margins of the settlement.

People in southern Madagascar are learning to adapt to climate change.

People in southern Madagascar are learning to adapt to climate change.

Climate change intensifies weather’s impact

For as long as people can remember, fishing and farming have been the main activities here, and people have been able to cope with the vicissitudes of the weather, including the seasonal wind which builds in intensity from the beginning of March every year.

It blows in from the Indian Ocean and whips up the red sandy soil along this once fertile coastline. It is called the Tiomena, which translates from the Malagasy language as red wind.

Jean Christian Lahanbitoly, a fisher and community leader, says the Tiomena has had a significant impact on life in coastal communities.

“The Tiomena carries the sand on the hills along the coast and drives it inland towards our village. When it is strong, it is almost impossible to work outside. When we don’t work, it means we have no money to buy food or water, so we suffer a lot.”

Jean Christian Lahanbitoly is a fisher and community leader.

Jean Christian Lahanbitoly is a fisher and community leader.

The Tiomena is not a new challenge to this and other communities in the rural communes of Maroalopoty and Maroalomainty, but its intensity has increased due to climate change.

Deforestation over many decades has left many hillsides bare and open to ravages of the strong winds, which have led to increased erosion of the sandy soils these communities are built on. And as sands creep over the land of these predominantly farming people, the ability to cultivate crops is decreasing.

But, the village is blighted by another aspect of climate change – the lack of water.

“It is very difficult for farmers to grow any crops as the Tiomena is bringing sand that is invading our land and village,” Mr. Lahanbitoly said. “It’s becoming even harder now, as we also don’t get enough rain.”

Madagascar is the fourth most climate change-affected country in the world according to the UN, and across southern Madagascar, farmers are struggling to harvest parched crops, especially maize which is traditionally grown but which requires a lot of water.

Some people have started leaving villages like Zanavo Fagnalenga and migrating north in the search of less challenging growing conditions “where the land is better and life is easier”, Mr. Lahanbitoly said. For many, it is the only way to avoid going hungry.

A woman sells produce in the village of Zanavo Fagnalenga.

A woman sells produce in the village of Zanavo Fagnalenga.

‘I am an optimist’

“I am an optimist,” he added, “but, the pessimistic view is that if things don’t improve, we will all die of hunger.”

Mr. Lahanbitoly is right to feel optimistic following the launch of a project which is aimed at protecting the vulnerable coastal habitat and enabling communities to earn their livelihoods.

The focus is the humble sisal plant, which is resistant to harsh conditions and well adapted to more a more arid environment. 

When cultivated in grids, the plant can help to secure the topsoil and prevent further erosion. In Maroalopoty and Maroalomainty, this means fewer sandstorms and more opportunities to work the land.

The stiff fibre it produces can also be exploited commercially and processed into rope and even clothes.

“For so long we have not been able to cultivate this land because of the sand,” said local farmer Lydia Monique Anjarasoa, “but we have planted sisal plants, which have helped the community.”

The planting of sisal, along with cactus and ipomoea, a type of vine, which provides more stability and water-retention qualities to the soil, has been supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the government.

Individuals were paid to plant the crop, providing much needed income they were able to spend in their communities, thereby boosting local economies.

UNDP’s Fabrice Mamitiana.

UNDP’s Fabrice Mamitiana.

One plant has changed the landscape

“The people living here are very vulnerable and have become poorer as harvests have decreased,” said UNDP’s Fabrice Mamitiana. “The community is happy because we created employment, and they saw that the sands stopped advancing because of the sisal they planted. This allowed them to continue growing on the remaining agricultural land and with the little amount of rain that came, they were able to have a small harvest.”

Now, farmers and their families are growing, eating and selling beans, millet and sorghum amongst other crops. They are now more resilient to the increasingly harsh environment and are recognizing for the first time in some years that they have a productive and sustainable future on their land.

However, there is little they can do to change the inconsistent rainfall. “Where there is no rainfall, there is no production and this has led to the decapitalization of the people in this region and has pushed them towards hunger,” said the Governor of Androy region, Soja Lahimaro.

“There are emergency solutions,” he explained, “but these are just temporary, so we are working together with the UN and government on a longer-term development plan.”

There are plans, if funds are available, to extend the planting of sisal to other communities in the south to reinforce their resilience to the changing climate and to put them on the path to sustainable development.

SDG 15

SDG 15

SDG 15: SUSTAINABLY USE ECOSYSTEMS

 

  • Combat desertification and restore degraded land and soil
  • Ensure conservation of mountain ecosystems to enhance their capacity to provide benefits essential for sustainable development
  • Promote fair, equitable sharing of and access to benefits related to genetic resources use
  • End poaching and trafficking of protected species and address demand and supply of illegal wildlife products
  • Mobilize and increase financial resources to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity and ecosystems and to fund sustainable forest management

 

Escalating forest losses, land degradation, and species extinction pose severe threats to the planet and people



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