Picking up after cyclone Fame

The authorities and aid agencies in Madagascar are coming to grips with the destruction left by cyclone Fame; although there is room for improvement, the response so far has shown that the 2007 cyclone season taught valuable lessons.

In late January tropical cyclone Fame made landfall in the northwest of the island "as a category one, meaning winds of 120 to 150 kilometres per hour," said Edouard Libeau, Emergency Specialist at the UN's Children Fund (UNICEF) in Madagascar. Fame tore through the centre of the island and then slowly dissipated as it moved east towards the Indian Ocean.

"Accompanying the cyclone was a lot of rain. So, besides the damage caused by the winds, there was heavy flooding in the northwest and centre of the country," Libeau added.

Dia Styvanley Soa, spokeswoman for the National Office for Natural Disasters Preparedness (BNGRC), told IRIN, "Twelve people have been killed; every day we get new information coming in from the districts and we have so far registered 8,613 people affected, of which 3,156 have lost their shelters.

"At the moment, people without shelters are most in need of assistance because they have lost everything: their house, food, materials ... there are others with needs too, but the priority now is to help the unsheltered people," she said.

The Information Officer at the UN World Food Programme in Madagascar, Volana Rarivoson, said representatives of the government, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had carried out two assessments by air, with a third mission to assess the situation in the severely affected northwestern district of Mampikony was planned for Thursday.

Concerns have been raised over the longer-term effects the damage might have on food security in some areas, particularly rice, the staple food. "In total, 350ha of agricultural areas are flooded; of those, 320ha are rice fields," said Rarivoson.

Natural disaster-prone island

Madagascar faced a string of calamities in 2007: cyclones, tropical storms and unprecedented flooding in the northern and central regions contrasted with chronic drought in the south, making this an unusually severe year, even for this natural-disaster-prone island.

The combined effects of the disasters left nearly half a million people in need of humanitarian assistance by the end of March 2007. The 2006/07 cyclone season, which runs from December through March, peaked when cyclone Indlala struck the northeast and northwest, caused widespread damage and left 88 people dead.

Hard lessons

"Madagascar is learning from its experience with cyclones," said the Styvanley Soa. "The first [in October 2007] thing the BNGRC did to prepare itself for the cyclone season was to organise a meeting with all the stakeholders in emergencies, with the help of OCHA [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] and UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund], to improve coordination with partners.

A cyclone simulation exercise conducted with the government, NGOs and UN agencies in November 2007 also contributed greatly to a more rapid and coordinated response, and helped "to identify strengths and weakness in an intervention," Rarivoson said.

Libeau noted that better pre-positioning of food and non-food items throughout the country had been invaluable. "The government and humanitarian partners have learned to decentralise stocks. In Madagascar logistics is a crucial issue - if you pre-position stock you can be much faster in responding."

Rarivoson felt that "Certain aspects have been better managed than previous years, but other issues remain to be improved. On the outskirts of Antananarivo [the capital], where the majority of the homes are located close to ... rivers, the people affected by floods are used to returning to their homes as soon as the [flood] alert is lifted," but this did not always mean it was safe to do so.

Styvanley Soa agreed. "Our main problem is that many people live near rivers, despite the authorities prohibiting this in certain areas. Even if they know the threat they expose themselves to, they still remain in those places." Poor construction standards in Madagascar also presented a severe risk. "People may be buried under houses; rain and wind can easily destroy them."