Madagascar: Rice farmers ask gov’t to repair infrastructure after natural disasters

October 15, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

Mr. Haja painfully rises from his bed and staggers from the room. It’s three o’clock in the morning and he must go to work in the bitter cold. It’s just 13 degrees Celsius.

Mr. Haja is 42 and lives in Ambohitsoa, a community 20 kilometres from the city centre of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. He’s a bus fare collector on the route that links Alasora urban area to Antananarivo, and travels nearly five kilometres by foot to the bus station. By the time he arrives, he is often very tired and almost always angry: “I feel vulnerable and the surrounding fear torments me because the city is known for crime in the streets. Every morning when I wake up, I pray that my paddy field becomes useable again.”

Mr. Haja used to make a good living as a rice farmer, earning an annual income of three million Malagasy ariary ($860 US). When he became a fare collector, his income was cut in half, and he can no longer provide for his wife and five children.

He used to grew rice on a farm in Ambohitsoa. He built a house and sent his five children to a private school. Today, they study in a public school that he struggles to afford.

The difficulties began in February 2015 when two weeks of heavy rains flooded up to 70% of the capital. Rice production on the Antananarivo lowlands was badly affected, with 90% of crops flooded. The paddy field that Mr. Haja had tilled for 17 years was swallowed up; he lost his whole crop.

Mr. Haja invested the equivalent of one year’s income to build a rainwater canal to revive his rice field. But the great drought in early 2017 was followed by cyclone Ava in January 2018, and these natural disasters compromised his efforts. His field was again flooded. The canal broke under the pressure of water, and he abandoned his field.

Farmers use most of the irrigated areas in the capital to grow rice. Water management infrastructure such as dams, basins, channels, and drainage systems reduce the impact of high water and floods on plots. Thanks to these structures, farmers’ fields don’t get too much or too little water. But most of the structures are not well-maintained.

Rivo Nasolonjanahary also abandoned his rice field in Ambohidreny to become a bus fare collector. He is 37.

Mr. Nasolonjanahary urges the government to help rice farmers. He says: “The government must renovate the [water management] infrastructure, the most recent of which were built in the ‘80s. This could enable us to better resist floods and cyclones, as well as contribute to a better yield when we resume rice farming. I look forward to quitting this poor job that wears us out for nothing.”

Julot Herman Randdriamanalina is the technical assistant of the Unit of Emergency Prevention and Management at the Malagasy Prime Minister’s Office. He says it’s essential to restore the water management infrastructure and enforce the Malagasy hydro-agricultural building standards against high water and floods. He adds, “The future of the national rice production and the protection of rice farmers depends on it.”

Weather events such as severe cyclones, droughts, and heavy rains are becoming increasingly common in sub-Saharan Africa, and farmers are struggling to adapt.

Mr. Haja and Mr. Nasolonjanahary want to go back to their fields and resume their former lives—for their own well-being and that of their families.