Starting to count the humanitarian cost

Madagascar's political infighting has drawn international attention, but aid agencies warn that the ongoing tug-of-war for power should not detract from soaring food prices, severe drought in the south, and the destruction left by two tropical cyclones.

"Children are afraid of attending school, food prices have increased, leaving the most vulnerable hungry, and the lack of environmental sanitation in town increases the risk of epidemics," Bruno Maes, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Madagascar, told IRIN.

Weeks of opposition protests and turmoil have claimed the lives of some 170 people, while around 1,000 have been injured. Rumour and speculation ran rife in local and international media this week as opposition and military leaders moved in on government and presidential buildings.

By most accounts the army had put its weight behind Andry Rajoelina, opposition leader and former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo, driving his bid to oust incumbent President Marc Ravalomanana. The military, in contravention of the country's constitution, then reportedly handed power to Rajoelina.

The move was met with international condemnation, including by the Southern African Development Community, the African Union, the European Commission and the US, raising speculation that the coup-style power grab might result in a freeze on international aid.

With around 70 percent of Madagascar's population scraping by on less than a dollar a day, this is a conflict the country can ill afford. Although the socio-economic challenges facing Madagascar fuelled the unrest, the crisis has severely destabilized the economy.

The unrest has brought a slump in tourism, worth US$390 million in 2008, and some 25,000 jobs are critically at risk, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The crisis hit the cities hardest

"Loss of employment due to the political crisis threatens to push the vulnerable poor and lower-middle classes into destitution. For those who are already indigent, estimated at over 500,000 ... the current crisis has put even the most basic foodstuffs beyond their reach," Krystyna Bednarska, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN.

''In the urban centres ... just after the start of the violent demonstrations, drastic increases in the prices of most basic essentials were reported''

"In the urban centres ... just after the start of the violent demonstrations, drastic increases in the prices of most basic essentials were reported." Rural areas seemed largely unaffected.

Maes said since the onset of the unrest there had been very little or no garbage collecting and the accumulation of waste in the capital's streets were cause for concern over public health; with large numbers of urban poor living in cramped conditions, the risk of waterborne diseases and diarrhoea outbreaks was becoming serious.

Drought stalks the south

Late rains in Madagascar's arid south are prolonging the lean season in the area. "This means a caseload of 150,000 people that will need assistance until at least June," Bednarska said.

According to the latest Situation Report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), "WFP and partners are already intensifying Food for Work (FFW), school feeding and general feeding activities in the drought-affected south," while "the national nutrition agency (ONN) is stepping up activities to respond to the deteriorating nutritional situation." 

Access to potable water in the south is also worrying. "Water collected from rivers is sold at high prices [US$0.20 for 10 litres, one aid worker said] and some vulnerable groups have started using sea water for cooking." Cases of diarrhoea had been increasing as of mid-February, the report noted.

Forgotten cyclones

Madagascar was hit by two tropical cyclones a week before the protests began: "Eric" struck the east coast on 18 January, followed by "Fanele", which made landfall on the west coast two days later. Extensive damage and flooding across the island affected more than 60,000 people and left more than 4,000 homeless.

"The unrest created further challenges to the ability of humanitarian agencies to mobilize an effective response to the areas affected by the cyclones, leaving tens of thousands of people without assistance," the International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies said in a February statement.

The OCHA report noted that "assistance to affected population is ongoing" and some 1,400 people remain sheltered in temporary facilities."

Bracing for the worst

Given the numerous challenges facing the humanitarian community in Madagascar, Bednarska warned that current in-country resources would be insufficient to cover humanitarian needs.

Photo: ReliefWeb
Districts affected by cyclones Eric and Fanele and protests in the capital

"Additional funding is urgently required. WFP's resourcing shortfall to address immediate food needs in the drought-affected south and the urban centres is around $13 million, she said.

An "Immediate Needs Action Plan" [an emergency funding initiative], coordinated by the OCHA office, is being prepared by all UN agencies and their partners.

International aid agencies were also preparing for the eventuality that things could get worse: "Inter-agency efforts have been deployed to elaborate a number of different scenarios, around which contingency plans are being developed," Bednarska said.

Dia Styvanley Soa, spokeswoman for Madagascar's disaster management authority (BNGRC), said there was clearly a gap to be filled: "I wish BNGRC was involved in this 'humanitarian aspect' of the political crisis but, 'til now, there is nothing; no contingency planning, no response."