Dusty winds exacerbate looming famine in Madagascar’s deep south

  • At least 1.27 million people are in need of humanitarian aid in Madagascar’s drought in the deep south. This emerges from an application by the United Nations and the Malagasy government on January 18 for international aid amounting to 75.9 million US dollars to deal with the crisis.
  • The area also experiences dust and sand storms, a natural phenomenon known as tiomena, which exacerbates the crisis by suffocating plants, forests, buildings and roads.
  • Tiomenas can become increasingly common as southern Madagascar is going through a long-term drying trend.
  • Experts say upgrading the area’s water supply system is an urgent priority and recommend massive tree planting to provide shelter from the wind, protect soil from erosion, and create more moisture.

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar – As the drought is driving more than 1 million people in southern Madagascar to famine, violent winds have shrouded the skies with dust and sand and sometimes wiped out the sun.

The natural phenomenon is known locally as Tiomena: Tio means “wind” in Malagasy and Mena means “red”. It complicates an already precarious situation. The United Nations World Food Program has urgently requested $ 35 million to fund life-saving food and cash distributions and malnutrition treatment programs. On January 18, the United Nations and the Malagasy government jointly launched a “flash appeal” for international aid worth US $ 75.9 million to give 1.27 million people access to food, water and medical care to improve. People are fleeing the area and the government is grappling with the waves of migration reported in early January.

“In the Tanandava area in the Amboasary Atsimo district, all residents have left their village,” said Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert, entrepreneur and student of political anthropology in Ambovombe, the capital of the Androy region, which is the epicenter of drought and winds Mongabay. “All of their houses were buried in the sand raised by the Tiomena.”

A man during a dust or sand storm known as Tiomena in the Androy region of southern Madagascar. Image by Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert.

A natural phenomenon

Tiomenas can appear almost anywhere in Madagascar when the winds blow strong in dry, dusty areas. According to Rivo Randrianarison, a weather forecasting specialist with the national meteorological service in the capital, Antananarivo, the deep south is particularly vulnerable to Tiomenas as a particularly dusty area with poor vegetation cover amid a prolonged drought.

Tiomenas resemble small versions of the massive dust or sand storms seen in the Sahara or the Middle East, he said. Climate change could be a factor, he said, as soils in the region have become drier as temperatures rise. Add deforestation, he said, and “the likelihood of more Tiomenas appearing obviously increases accordingly.”

Randrianarison said Tiomenas always appeared, but in the past they hit a limited area and received less attention in the days leading up to social media.

According to Mahatante Tsimanaoraty Paubert, Tsimanova’s brother and climate expert at the University of Toliara, the trade winds that Tiomenas can bring in southern Madagascar blew from mid-May to mid-October. Now it blows most of the year. Current Tiomena conditions started on October 29th, just as they would normally have ended, and have continued until now, he said – despite some welcome rains in the area on January 19th.

Drought and prolonged Tiomenas have caused terrible damage to crops, leading to severe food insecurity in southern Madagascar. Image by Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert.

The Tiomena events affect an area approximately 200 kilometers wide between the Mandrare River and the town of Beloha Androy. The meteorological service has registered at least five Tiomenas so far in 2021, but the number is likely incomplete as there are no observation networks in the affected areas, according to Randrianarison.

The lack of observatories also means there is little historical data that could suggest whether Tiomenas are becoming more common or more destructive, as Randrianarison and many locals suggest.

Elders remember a particularly destructive phenomenon that lasted five days in 1987, said anthropology student Tsimanova. “The current ones are worse,” he added.

Southern Madagascar entered the current desiccation period about 3,000 years ago. It now appears to be caught in a deteriorating cycle of drought, poverty, deforestation and erosion, with increasingly common phenomena exacerbating the already uncertain existence there. “Tiomenas would not happen if people had not cut down massively … the cactus forests and uprooted sisals for animal feed,” said Tsimanova.

“This wind limits and disrupts the livelihood of the southern population,” said Mahatante. In the cities, the Tiomenas slow everything down: all business, teaching and administrative work, he said.

In the countryside, however, the situation is more worrying. The winds create dunes and pile sand on farmland, forests, villages and cemeteries. “Fishermen can’t go out and farms face crop failure as the wind quickly dries the soil and the particles they carry adversely affect the leaves of the cover plants, impairing photosynthesis.”

People have not been able to grow crops since October, and the last harvest took place in June.

“To survive, families eat tamarind mixed with clay,” said Moumini Ouedraogo, the WFP representative in Madagascar, in a January 12 press release. “We can’t face another year like this. Without rain and bad harvests, people will starve to death. Nobody should have to live like that. “

Even the cactus, which the rural population relied on for food during the drought, has dried up, and dust or sand has destroyed the few existing wells. Water is scarce and the price has risen: 20 liters cost 2,000 ariary or $ 0.52 – if that luxury is even available.

Purple dots represent the number of people in the thousands who suffer from severe food insecurity in southern Madagascar. Source: Madagascar – Grand Sud Flash Appeal (January – May 2021), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Sickness in the wind

As if hunger wasn’t enough, Tiomenas pose additional public health risks, said Tsivahiny Paubert, doctor and head of the regional hospital in Ambovombe. (The three Pauberts mentioned in this story – Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert, Mahatante Tsimanaoraty Paubert, and Tsivahiny Paubert – are brothers.)

As a direct result, says Tsivahiny, more and more children under the age of 5 suffer from fever, respiratory infections, diarrhea and eye problems. “The toilet use rate is low in the south,” said Tsivahiny. “People are used to being listed in the wild. When Tiomena comes, the blowing dust or sand carries human excrement with microbes. “

Tiomenas can cause slow death. Tsivahiny said his department had seen increased cases of depression and cardiovascular problems such as strokes due to the stressful living conditions. “Even 25-year-olds are affected today. It’s a new trend, ”he said.

He attributes a number of other adverse health effects to the Tiomenas and the drought. With condoms the last thing on anyone’s mind, he said there had been an “explosion” of HIV / AIDS infections. His service recorded two or three new cases a week, including in children, compared to two a month earlier. Prenatal consultations have decreased significantly and poisonings have skyrocketed among the desperately poor due to the reliance on medicinal plants. And he has noted a widespread decline in social cohesion, leading to increased fragility and vulnerability of local populations.

“We will have orphans from HIV / AIDS beyond the deaths caused by famine,” Tsivahiny said.

Part of the city of Ambovombe, the capital of the Androy region, during a Tiomena. Image by Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert.

“Impossible without water”

As dire as the situation is in southern Madagascar, experts insist that it is possible to reverse it.

“Tiomena is a natural disaster that could be brought under control,” said Tsibara Mbohoahy, an environmental expert at the University of Toliara and director of the Androy Regional University Center in Ambovombe. “For the resilience of the community, water is the unique solution for eradicating famine and protecting soil from erosion. It is a socio-economic, health and environmental solution all at once. “

The United Nations’ most recent flash appeal not only provides for the transport of water to meet immediate needs, but also rehabilitation and expansion of the region’s existing system to provide water for human and animal consumption as well as for agriculture supply, including the possible addition of desalination plants.

Mahatante, for his part, advocates massive tree planting in the region. Trees would serve as wind protection, protect soil from erosion and generate more moisture. But such plantings are “impossible without water,” he said.

Nonetheless, the government launched the national tree-planting campaign for the year on January 19 in Tolagnaro, capital of the Anosy region, east of Androy, and four days later the Androy regional campaign in the Ankilivalo Ambovombe municipality. There, people planted 30,000 fatiolitse trees (Alluaudia montagnacii), a species endemic to the country’s thorn forests, in order to reforest 100 hectares in the region this year. Madagascar plans to plant trees on 75,000 hectares across the country in 2021, and 40,000 hectares in 2020.

Planting native fatiolitse trees (Alluaudia montagnacii) to create wind breaks and stabilize dunes in the Androy region in southern Madagascar. Image courtesy of MEDD.

Banner image: Children in the middle of a Tiomena in the Ambovombe district of the Androy region in southern Madagascar. Image by Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert.


Burney, DA (1993). Late Holocene environmental changes in the dry southwest of Madagascar. Quaternary Research, 40 (1), 98- 106. doi: 10.1006 / qres.1993.1060

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Climate, climate change, climate change and extreme weather, climate change and nutrition, climate policy, climate justice, deforestation, drought, extreme weather, famine, food crisis, food security, reforestation, water, water crisis, water scarcity, weather, wind

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