We don’t talk enough about Madagascar. In terms of emergencies, the situation is as dire as those you see in the headlines but there are few aid agencies working here. This lack of awareness has a direct impact on women like Noro.
Noro lives with her two children in a village in northern Madagascar. She was at home when a tropical storm hit. ‘We were surprised by the rising floodwaters,’ she says. ‘We didn’t even have time to pack anything. Beds, mattresses, buckets were all stuck inside the house, as well as the kids’ schoolbags. All of our belongings were destroyed.’
Fast onset emergencies are common in Madgascar. The country experiences four to five deadly storms every year, each one unleashing a torrential downpour that can lead to fatal flash flooding. In addition to destroying homes, livelihoods, and local infrastructure, these flash floods contaminate local water sources, contributing to the spread of diseases like the bubonic plague – last seen in Madagascar as recently as 2017 – and cholera. The south of the country, meanwhile, continues to experience the second-worst drought since 1974. According to the World Food Programme, families are now eating tamarind fruit mixed with clay simply to survive.
Committed to Innovation in Madagascar
Because of frequent storms and severe weather events, we maintain an Emergency Response Team in Madagascar and collaborate with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Scouts to maintain a national emergency team. When a cyclone is approaching we are in constant communication with our partners at Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Most recently we completed an aerial survey with MAF to assess the damage from Cyclone Eloise, and those findings are shared with organisations in Madagascar and around the world.
We are coordinating well to respond to emergencies, but we also aim to reduce the impact to families like Noro’s. We are consistently working on continuous improvement in how we serve people and creating opportunities to reduce human suffering, preserve dignity, and restore hope.
Despite being susceptible to such severe weather, many communities in Madagascar don’t have an early warning system for tropical storms. Severe weather alerts sent out by the Meteorological Institute don’t always reach those directly in the path of the storm and they cannot inform on the level of eventual flooding. Limited resources mean local emergency response teams aren’t always able to reach affected communities quickly, leaving families without shelter or safe drinking water for days or weeks at a time.
We decided to act.
We combined our drive for innovation with expertise from the communities we serve and years of experience responding major storms in northern Madagascar. Partnering with the National Bureau of Disaster Management (BNGRC) and the National Weather System, as well as two private sector partners – the Earth Network and Viamo – we established a digital early warning system. We call this system the 930 because of the hotline number to which it is linked.
The 930 uses satellite imagery, lighting sensors, and flood-risk mapping of the local river systems to project how fast a river can flood its banks, and how quickly the rising water will reach communities downstream. We can issue warnings with enough time for families to react. Sirens have been installed in communities and training has been done so people can send alerts on sending alerts in the event of potentially devastating weather events. An emergency hotline provides information on national disasters and offers instructions on what to do when an alert has been issued. In the event of catastrophic floods, communities can send a damage report via the 930 number to the BNGRC so that the Government of Madagascar and humanitarian organisations can quickly respond.
‘With this project, we have the opportunity to enhance our monitoring and information dissemination system,’ says Voahangy, Director of Weather Operations at the National Weather System.
What’s the aim?
Our aim for this early warning system is to reduce the number of people killed, injured by, evacuated from, displaced, or made destitute because of these storms. We know this is a difficult goal to reach.
This early warning system does not stop tropical storms from tearing the roofs off homes, flooding communities, or destroying critical infrastructure like bridges, schools, and hospitals. It does, however, ensure that local communities have access to the information they need to make decisions about their personal safety. Storm alerts ensure that communities know whether an approaching cyclone has severe wind gusts and a strong potential to lead to flooding. Alerts let people know about the best options for evacuation, ensuring that they know how soon they need to leave their community, can warn friends and neighbours to do the same, and can assist those who need help leaving. Our trained local emergency response teams can act immediately to bring supplies for providing shelter and purifying contaminated water, ultimately reducing disease and suffering following a major tropical storm.
We’ve already seen that the early warning system is having an effect: in 2020 alone, the emergency hotline received more than 38,000 calls, and storm warning messages reached more than 270,000 people in three disaster-prone districts.
Is it enough? Can we do more?
One of the challenges we have in responding to recurrent natural disasters like these tropical storms is that so much needs to happen to get to the very root of the problem. We need an immediate global response to the climate crisis to support communities affected by cyclones in the north, and communities affected by hunger and drought in the south. Madagascar was already one of the poorest countries in the world before COVID-19 and months of national lockdown devastated the local economy. Much more humanitarian funding is needed to support the country’s resource-limited hospitals, provide safe drinking water, support communities deeply affected by the climate emergency, and trigger economic growth in Madagascar.
We cannot overcome these challenges on our own. We can, however, use innovation to ensure that families like Noro’s – who already feel the effects of the climate crisis so acutely – do not suffer further from natural disasters. That is what our early warning system does, because each life is worth the extra mile.
Medair services in Madagascar are funded by Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, UN Children’s Fund, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Private Sector Humanitarian Platform, Rotary Club, and generous private donors.
This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.