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In Madagascar, water's a luxury

There are nearly 850,000 people in Madagascar that desperately need food and water, but humanitarian agencies are overworked and underfunded, and the country is suffering through a crippling drought that has left no water and damaged needed crops.
There are nearly 850,000 people in Madagascar that desperately need food and water, but humanitarian agencies are overworked and underfunded, and the country is suffering through a crippling drought that has left no water and damaged needed crops.
Published Feb. 24, 2017

KOBOKARA, Madagascar — Tiny wooden houses are scattered across the harsh gray sand of Kobokara hamlet in southern Madagascar. A woman squats in one of them, looking out her low door. Her small stick house is bare, but for a blanket, a mosquito net and a homemade straw mat.

Her words settle in a sigh: "I have nothing left."

It is the lament of a parched land, where women cry for thirsty children, and farmers' hope is spent.

In Madagascar, the island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa, a grim cycle has set in. Rains arrive late and leave early in the African country most exposed to climate change, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Droughts, earthquakes, epidemics, floods, cyclones and extreme temperatures have wrought severe damage on agriculture in recent decades.

The worst drought in 35 years pushed families to the brink in the last year, with the harvest 95 percent lower than in 2015.

Fringes of prickly pear cactus run through Kobokara, yet to bear fruit. Usually it is only cattle fodder.

"It's been one year that we have been eating the leaves of the cactus," said the woman in the stick house, Tonelie. Like many here, she has only one name.

Nearly 850,000 people in Madagascar desperately need food aid. But the U.N.'s humanitarian appeal for the country is only 29 percent funded because of emergencies elsewhere. Even the most desperate families are given only half of what they need to survive.

Each year, farmers in southern Madagascar sow their seeds in November for the rainy season, but in recent years the skies have only spluttered sulkily for a few weeks, before drying up and searing the immature crops.

Some rain finally arrived late last year, but many families had no seeds left to plant and no money to buy them.

With repeated crop failures, people have to sell firewood to survive, taking small sharp axes and hacking efficiently at the trees that are the lungs of their dying country — only deepening the crisis.

Tonelie, 42, has six of her eight children still living at home and no husband. She has land to farm, but it is bare.

Eight months ago, she made the long, regretful walk to market to sell her last cow. Many people in this harsh land have sold their last goat or even their last chicken.

Then week by week, they have sold everything else: clothes, spoons, tin plates, cups, pots, plastic sheets. Even their mattresses.

They cling finally to their plastic water cans, receptacles of the last drops of hope.

Tonelie even had to sell hers.

Painfully thin, she speaks with quiet resignation. She rises each morning with empty pockets and has the hours of daylight to somehow come up with something so that she and her children can live another day. She works someone else's land to earn the equivalent of about 30 cents a day.

She took her children out of school because there was no money, so they must help in the grinding job of survival.

In Kobokara, people dig holes in the sandy ground for water, but five months ago, the water dried up. Once a week, water sellers from a village to the east drive their ox carts 9 miles along the deep sandy track, and Tonelie takes out the crumpled, sweaty banknotes that will decide her week.

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"If I have (enough) money I buy two cans. If not I buy only one can," said Tonelie, referring to the plastic 5-gallon cans used to store water. (She has to borrow them.) In a bad week, that leaves the equivalent of just over one soda can apiece a day.

"My biggest problem is food," she said. The 30 cents she earns as a farm laborer buys water, "but it's not enough to buy food." Her family survives on prickly pear cactus and occasional handouts from an uncle in a nearby village.

Across the south, small children endure constant, pitiless thirst. Mothers go without so that their children can drink a little more.

"The biggest issue in the south is water. They don't have rain. They don't have access to water, even in good years," said Elke Wisch, UNICEF's country director for Madagascar.

In the neighboring village of Ikopoky, Jocelyn Rasoanakambana, 29, puts her six children to sleep without water on the days she has no money.

"I can borrow a bit of money to buy water," she said recently. "But when it's day after day after day, even my relatives don't want to give. When we have no money, we go to bed without drinking any water.

"Last Thursday was one of the worst days. I had no money to buy water, so my children were crying. I felt so helpless, thinking about what is happening to us. Sometimes when I see my children crying, there's a tear in my eye too."

In her village, three children in one family died recently and the parents moved away.

Humanitarian agencies such as the World Food Program, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services and USAID have tried to help, providing cash grants, food, seeds, water and health projects. But their efforts haven't been enough.

World Food Program rations had to be cut in half because the agency's fundraising target from donors fell short, and some villages were never reached by humanitarian agencies.

"Families are ashamed abut not being able to provide for their kids. They're embarrassed," said Joshua Poole of Catholic Relief Services. "If a child passes away, they wait until night to bury them, when no one else is around."

From Tonelie's house in Kobokara, it's a short walk past a rare shade tree to the small house of an old farmer named Veza. He plucks a red flower from the prickly pear cactus and bites into it with crooked yellow teeth. He planted last year, but the crop died; this year he had no money and no seeds, and there was not enough rain.

He senses his life is coming to an end, gradually whittled back to nothing.

Veza's modest wealth was the work of a lifetime: three goats and four cattle, in a culture where money and pride are counted in herds of cows and bulls. But one of the cattle died. Four years ago, after bad rains and a failed harvest, he took the bitter decision to sell the other three.

"I didn't have any choice. I felt terrible, because I didn't have cattle. I had nothing." A year later his wife, calling him weak, walked out and never came back.

Then two of his three goats died. And with dwindling hope in recent months, he sold the last goat and all his plates and pots.

"I am so unhappy. I'm just waiting out the rest of my life, until I die."


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