The dry Mananbovo River in Madagascar. Picture: ACTION
Water, water, everywhere,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

ENGLISH poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing these lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner more than 200 years ago, might as well have sketched the scene from the parched village of Sampona in southern Madagascar in 2017.

Home to more than 169 families, Sampona counts the Indian Ocean as its southern border, but without major investment in a desalination plant, people cannot use it to quench the thirst of this parched land.

With dwindling water tables, which are themselves highly saline owing to proximity to the ocean - a problem compounded by challenging geology - the availability of fresh water is extremely limited. At the peak of the dry season, a 20-litre jerry can cost as much as 1200 Madagascar ariary (R4.56) in a region where 92% of the people survive on less than $2 (R24.52) a day.

According to the World Bank, incomes average $0.83 a day here, meaning people sometimes spend more than a third of this on water.

The Indian Ocean has some of the saltiest waters in the world, especially in Madagascar’s zone - the belt between southern Africa and south-western Australia. And scientists say global warming is boosting salinity due to increased evaporation and reduced rainfall, especially in Africa.

“We do a little bit of (lobster) fishing but most of the time we just look at the ocean,” Chief Sylvain Soja Voalahatse says, a resigned expression on his face.

Southern Madagascar, the epicentre of the country’s struggle against climate change, is grappling with a third successive season of below-normal rainfall, forcing some villagers to walk 20km to find water. Across much of the region of about a million people cassava, rice and maize yields have slumped, leaving thousands threatened by famine.

The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) and sister UN agencies, including the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, as well as international donors such as the UK’s Department for International Development, are focused on helping communities build capacity to cope with future droughts and floods by helping them replace depleted assets as part of their humanitarian and development work.

“We are also working with the private sector, our partners and the government,” said Elke Wisch, Unicef’s country representative. “In addition to addressing the immediate needs, we are also urging longer-term investment in infrastructure in order to put sustainable solutions in place.”

To alleviate the current water shortages, Unicef and its partners are supporting the construction and rehabilitation of water and sanitation infrastructure in schools and communities. At schools Unicef provides filters and handwashing devices. In rural areas water points are being built to pump water powered by solar or gravity-led systems.

One of these is the Mandrare pipeline, a $2million project set to benefit more than 46000 people in communities around the town of Amboasary. It is expected to be completed by the end of the year. .

Madagascar ranks fourth worst in the world in sanitation, with only 12% of its people using an improved sanitation facility. And the country ranks sixth worst in the world in the use of safe water, with only half the national population of about 25 million having access to clean water.

At the Mandrare River bridge near Amboasary, almost 1000km south of the capital Antananarivo, we met 15-year-old Mahalanjy and his three brothers as they packed the last of 10 20-litre water cans on to their cart, ready to start their six-hour journey home.

“We got nothing from the fields,” says Mahalanjy, who adds that he can’t recall the last time he was in school. He says perhaps the most he has spent in school is two years. To a question on water at home, he has only one word - “Nothing”.

Mahalanjy and his brothers, as well as dozens of other people, harvest their water from wells dug in the sand, and use this for everything from cooking to washing clothes.

Around him was a hive of activity: in pools dotted along the river, women were bathing and washing clothes while kids frolicked in copper-coloured water, discoloured from dirt gathered along the 270km Mandrare River, which becomes a patchwork of disconnected pools when it dries up in the dry season.

The drought is an unwelcome distraction in a country with some of the worst human development indicators in the world. The country’s human development index of 0.512 in 2016 ranked it 158 out of 181 countries surveyed by the UN Development Programme. And it had been for the past 20 years.

Those statistics become more alarming when the focus shifts to children. Unicef says 47% of the country’s children are stunted - meaning they have suffered irreparable physical growth, and potentially mental development shortfalls - with the consequent impact reflected in the economy.

A recent joint Unicef/National Office of Nutrition study found that reduced productivity attributable to chronic malnutrition costs Madagascar $740m annually.

“It’s a slow, step-by-step slide into poverty,” says Jean-Benoit Manhes, the Unicef deputy representative in Madagascar. “Poverty is the cause of negative coping mechanisms,” he adds, citing rising school dropout rates, child labour and child marriage as among the key consequences for children.

The Ministry of Population, Social Protection and the Promotion of Women says it is playing a key role in helping the vulnerable access water by co-ordinating government programmes through the National Office of Risk and Disaster Management and the Ministry of Economy and Planning.

“The ministry is co-ordinating interventions so that the departments complement each other,” says Frédéric Andrianome Rakotovoavy, a ministry spokesperson.

* Unicef covered travel expenses for journalists on this trip.

* Mutizwa is a freelance writer.