By Evelyne Karanja
NAIROBI – Struck three months ago by a cyclone that affected 500,000 of its 24 million people, the climate-vulnerable Indian Ocean nation of Madagascar sees early warning and disaster preparedness as fundamental to its future resilience.
Cyclone Enawo, which made landfall in mid-March, claimed 81 lives and injured more than 250 people, according to the National Office for the Management of Risks and Crises, better known as the BNGRC, the acronym for its French-language name the Bureau National de Gestion des Risques et des Catastrophes.
Almost half a million people were affected by Enawo and over 200,000 were displaced. In addition 40,000 houses were destroyed, 3,900 classrooms damaged, 1,300 water points polluted and over a hundred health centers damaged.
Since the cyclone struck, residents have been working to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and get affected communities up and running again.
“The cyclone affected the economy of some of the districts that were directly hit by wind and heavy rains, many households lost their livelihoods and some basic service infrastructures such as roads, and electricity supply were destroyed,” said Mr. Thierry Venty, Executive Secretary of BNGRC.
Enawo, equivalent to a Category 4 hurricane, left in its wake significant damage to housing and agriculture in the northeastern Sava region. Red Cross assessment reports indicated that Antalaha was one of the hardest hit communities, with its port left inaccessible and more than half of the city’s homes destroyed. Half of all housing in Farahalana commune, meanwhile, was left underwater due to flooding by the Lohoko River. In the Analanjirofo region, more than 10,000 people were displaced.
The cyclone was the strongest to strike Madagascar in 13 years. Tropical Cyclone Gafilo hit similar areas in 2004 and resulted in the deaths of 363 people. As a result, Madagascar conducted studies on landfall risks and developed an early warning system. “The results of these studies have really helped us to identify the households which are located in very high risk areas and to improve the way citizens in those areas were alerted and informed of the risks” said Mr. Venty.
Madagascar is the country most exposed to cyclones in Africa and the third most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change. On average, 1.5 cyclones a year cross Madagascar, generally affecting two thirds of the country.
Humanity has always lived with the threat of natural hazards, but the past four decades have seen a quadrupling of hydro-meteorological disasters. Rising sea-levels are putting more and more communities around the globe in the firing line of superstorms and their related floods, storm-surges and landslides, while grinding periods of drought or unseasonal cold snaps hit farmers hard.
Understanding past disasters is critical to help countries brace for future hazards, and UNISDR had already supported the Government of Madagascar to set up an online disaster loss database where over 2,200 disasters of different magnitudes have been recorded, covering the period from 1982 to 2015. The database shows that while cyclones constitute less than 40 percent of recorded disasters, over two-thirds of mortality and 90 percent of the affected population can be attributed to this single hazard type.
BGNRC and the Institute and Geophysical Observatory of Antananarivo (IOGA) – the technical department responsible for alerts concerning geological hazards housed in the Department of Science of the University of Antananarivo -- work closely to develop tools to raise awareness, prevent disasters and conduct field assessments. Mr. Venty noted that once it was clear that the cyclone would hit Madagascar, the population was informed of the evolution of its strength, directions, and localization to reduce risk of loss of lives and livelihoods.
“We used various communication channels such as radio, television, mobile messaging services, and key informants in the communities, among others defined in the regional and national contingency plan, to inform the population and advise all communities of the actions they should take for each level of cyclone alert,” he explained. In addition to this strategy of information, education and communication which has highly improved the population’s awareness, teams from the national level were sent to support all local authorities and stakeholders’ efforts to be well prepared to face the cyclone.
Madagascar’s Disaster and Risk Management Act, amended in February 2016 to include an updated strategy on disasters and risk management, was validated by the government in September 2016. The two documents are based on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a global agreement adopted in 2015, and on good practices documented over time.
Coordination of disasters and disaster risk management in Madagascar is handled by a National Committee for Disaster and Risk Management, which includes the government and relevant stakeholders. Through the committee, members share experiences and are able to advise BNGRC to help improve the implementation plan of the national strategy on disaster and risk management.
According to Mr. Venty, there is a need to spearhead more programmes to support organizations, communities and households to improve their risk culture. Besides increasing education and awareness on disaster risk reduction among communities, it is important to capitalize on the achievements so far and share best practice and lessons learnt from indigenous knowledge and skills. BGNRC have ongoing projects on educating children at school, training journalists, and media campaigns for the public, but these are not enough to cover all the risks faced in Madagascar, all the sectors of activities and all the districts in the country.
Madagascar participated in a regionwide Indian Ocean tsunami exercise in September 2016 and used it to check its information-sharing practices between national and local levels, a stress test that be applied to all hazards. “We took lessons from this exercise in areas such as the preparation cycle from forecasts to alerts, information management and coordination and these played a key role in improving our internal organization,” said Mr. Venty.
More than half of the populations affected by Cyclone Enawo were assessed as being able to rebuild their houses unassisted. However, BNGRC stressed that this part of the population still required assistance to build back better with high-standard traditional homes, to better protect each household in the future.
BNGRC identifies the greatest lessons learnt from the cyclone as the importance of prevention and preparedness. All steps of information management, from information collection to protecting and sharing information, will be improved and coordination among all stakeholders at the national and local levels strengthened. BNGRC also points to the need to improve its real-time communication through its website and its communication to media.
A key step taken by the Government of Madagascar is to include disaster risk reduction in the national development policy and the consideration of disaster risk reduction in all national poverty reduction programmes. One of the strategic areas of the country’s 2015-2019 National Development Plan is the valuation of natural capital and the strengthening of resilience to risks of disasters.
To inform this process, UNISDR provides technical support to the government, including through risk profiling and published a report on ‘Public Investment Planning and Financing Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction’ to facilitate planning and implementation of risk-informed development.