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Thursday, July 27

France: Mostly volunteer firefighters paid pittance, have no burn insurance after 2 years

The (U.K.) International Business Times reports that a GoFundMe page has been created to help improve working conditions for firefighters in France, 80 percent of whom work on a volunteer basis. So far the funding effort, started July 25, has raised €8,225 (US$9,653) with a goal of raising 15,000 euros. 

With all due respect and admiration for the donors, the goal is a drop in the bucket next to what is needed. From the IBT report, the volunteers are only paid up to €8/hour -- US $9.40 -- and fight fires in 10 hour shifts. In addition:
In France, after two years, firemen suffering from burns are no longer covered by insurance, and have to pay by themselves for treatment that costs about 2,000 euros per week.
That's an outrage. British novelist Robert Harris, who was among the evacuees, tweeted at 12:23 AM July 26, "Brave pompiers [firefighters] of Bormes-les-Mimosas worked all night to save hundreds of homes. 10,000 people evacuated."

And from the same report tourist Anna Tomlinson posted that visitors had been “so, so lucky” the fires did not “overwhelm” the campsite and local houses, adding the pompiers were “heroes”. From the same report: 
Hundreds of firefighters are battling to bring several blazes under control since they broke out on Monday, including the one which has scorched 800 hectares in Var.
One would think that with all the wealthy property owners on the Riviera, they could cough up more pay for the volunteer firefighters and provide better insurance coverage for them.  

IBT also reports:
This is what prompted The Nice-Matin Group to create a GoFundMe page. It reads: "Strength and courage, huge respect. This is what comes to mind when we witness the firemen who are fighting the flames in the South of France."
So far, the page has gathered €6,625 €8,225.   
According to the President of the Association des Sapeurs Pompiers de Sud-Mediterranee (Association of Firefighters of the South-Mediterranean region) Lieutenant Pierre Binaud, thousands of men and women have come to help control the flames, some even risking their safety.

"It's actually been going on since July 15," Binaud told IBTimes UK. "All available personnel have been mobilised, from tackling the flames to implementing preventive measures around the region."
Lieutenant Binaud is originally Chief of the Fire Brigade of Contes, around 6 miles away from Nice. "Usually, one firefighter spends 10 hours on the flames. There are breaks at night, when we get to go home. But we work as much as we need to on the flames. We have to be available, we have to set an example."

He explains that on top of the average amount of hours in cases of forest fires like the ones France is experiencing this week, firefighters also have to "mind the everyday business of firemanship".
Since yesterday, they also have to look after the 10,000 people that have been evacuated in the region, who've been offered refuge in some of the cities' gymnasiums.
Lieutenant Binaud says the GoFundMe page is a great effort of solidarity. The money will likely go to fund some new equipment for the firefighters and might go to help firemen hurt in the line of duty.
As to how many firefighters are battling the wildfires -- well, from an AP report published last night at 7:40 in a Hong Kong paper:
Colonel Eric Martin, of the firefighting unit in the Var region of the Cote d'Azur, said that nearly 600 firefighters were trying to contain the flames that had run through 1,300 hectares of Bormes, a magnet for tourists in southeastern France. At least 3,000 of the evacuees were campers.

The Bormes blaze was morphing into the largest in the area. Firefighters also were fighting a large blaze in nearby La Londes-Les-Maures (pictured). The Toulon airport to the west was briefly closed.
I doubt 600 is the total for the entire affected area in southern France, but that's a ballpark figure. 

Again, here is the link if you can donate: 

https://www.gofundme.com/soutien-aux-sapeurs-pompiers-du-sud


Kudos to IBT and the reporter on the story, Claire Toureille, for informing the public about the fundraiser and the situation for France's volunteer firefighters. 

The French government needs to create better fire-fighting policy because the wildfires that have been raging across southern Europe during the past month are not routine for the fire season there, and yet will be the new normal during drought conditions.  

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Wednesday, July 26

DROUGHT: At least half Italy's 20 regions declaring disaster

Somalia? No, Italy

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

From BBC, 1 hour ago: 

Italy has suffered its third-driest spring in 60 years, affecting two-thirds of farmland and costing Italian agriculture some €2bn ($2.3bn; £1.8bn). There have been two years of lower-than-average rainfall in Rome.

[...]

Italy's Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin has warned of health consequences if water rationing is imposed in Rome.
Parts of Italy, including the Lazio region around Rome, are suffering from drought.

The water company that serves Rome is proposing cutting supplies for eight hours a day to 1.5 million residents.

Water utility Acea blames a decision by officials to stop it taking supplies from a nearby lake.

The authorities that run Lazio say levels in Lake Bracciano have fallen too low because of the drought and they fear an environmental disaster.

Ms Lorenzin said: "An eventual suspension of the supply of water in Rome could seriously compromise the level of hygiene of all the accommodation structures, restaurants and public offices.

"But above all, it could seriously compromise the provision of essential health services."

Acea has criticised the decision to prevent the use of water from Lake Bracciano and said it had no choice but to introduce rationing.

But the water company and the regional authorities say they will continue to try to find a solution.

[...]
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Over-irrigating to quickly recharge aquifers. An abuse of science?

Too clever by half?


The other side of the almond orchard story


Earlier this year a scientific study showed that during California's severe drought, farmers in the state's Central Valley agriculture belt pumped enough groundwater to fill Lake Mead, which can store the average flow of the Colorado River for two years. Or, as Capital Radio's May 2017 report put it, enough to drown the state of Pennsylvania in a foot of water.   

One reason for all the pumping was the high temperatures during the drought, which increase the evaporative rate of water. Another reason was greed taken to the point of self-destruction. Farmers were able to make greater profits by substituting high-value orchard crops for row crops -- the problems being that orchards unlike row crops must be watered year-round, and that many tree crops are water hogs. The most infamous example is the almond tree; it slurps up a gallon of water per almond.  One consequence was that thousands of acres of almond trees were lost.  

But in January 2016 Capital Radio reported on a scientific experiment to flood almond orchards to restore depleted aquifers in California:
[...]
On Nick Blom's farm in Modesto, water pours out of an irrigation valve. Pretty quickly, it begins to cover six acres of almond trees in standing water. Blom says normally he wouldn’t water the trees this time of year.
"I did have some concerns. You do risk root damage and other kinds of things that can happen to your trees," says Blom.
An aquifer lies about 45 feet under the surface. Blom had to use that water this summer when surface supplies were cutback in the drought. Now, he’s trying to restore it.
Blom says he's over-irrigating right now. "The trees aren’t using it. So you’re basically putting water on the soil," says Blom. "So you’re getting 100 percent of that water percolating down and it goes into the groundwater and now it’s in your water table."
Scientists at UC Davis are studying whether flooding almond orchards during the winter time can help pull California out of a chronic groundwater overdraft, at least in some areas. UC Davis hydrologist Helen Dahlke says soils have to be suitable for it – but researchers have mapped that out.
"There are between 3.6 and 5.6 million acres where groundwater recharge could be done most likely," says Dahlke.
Coincidentally it’s pouring rain on Blom’s orchards. But it’s these El Nino rains that farmers hope to use to deliberately flood fields. Blom says water from Modesto’s storm drains feed into a canal system that he can use on his orchards.
“If we weren’t doing this experiment all the water would just end up in the river,” says Blom.
It would end up in the Tuolumne River. But recharging groundwater this way is no easy task.

“It’s a great idea using agricultural fields to recharge the groundwater, but there’s a lot of ducks that need to be in a row and the first duck is that we don’t want to kill the trees,” says Ken Shackel with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.
Shackel says he’s set up underground cameras to observe the tree roots. He’ll monitor for potential damage or disease.
Another risk is that fertilizers could also seep into the groundwater. Shackel says farmers may need to change the way they operate.
“They may need to change the way they fertilize the trees so that by the time we get to the wintertime and the recharge events, then the water is fairly pure that’s in the ground," says Shackel. "Trees will use nitrogen. Nitrate is the big issue, but there’s a lot of other things too.”
This is the third time researchers have flooded Nick Blom’s almond orchard as part of the experiment. Helen Dahlke says they’re getting a good idea how quickly the water seeps into the aquifer.
“The first one has happened roughly two weeks ago and the water had infiltrated within 24 hours, it was gone from the surface,”says Dahlke.
By the end of the experiment, Blom’s almond orchard will have received nearly two feet of water. The Almond Board of California is funding the research, which involves three different orchards. Nick Blom says he’s hopeful the experiment will only bring benefits.
“It’s helpful. It’s a benefit to everybody because we do sit in a basin of water. So if we can put water into that basin throughout our area, it’s going to help everybody’s groundwater. So all the wells will be fine,” says Blom.
Researchers are hopeful too. Previous tests on alfalfa, grapes and pistachios showed it didn’t harm the crops or affect drinking water.
[END REPORT]
If the monster drought in California was a thousand-year event, I'd have no problem with the clever way that scientists hit on to recharge aquifers provided it really did keep fertilizers out of the water supply. But no amount of recharging will reverse subsidence -- land sinkage, which was profound in the Central Valley due to overpumping during the drought. 

I am concerned that a relatively easy way to recharge aquifers will allow and encourage farmers there to continue with practices that are very destructive to the land.

And subsidence isn't the only issue. Since the drought developed there has been a debate, still unresolved when last I checked, about almond farming. It's the scale of the crop industry that is most troubling; 80 percent of the almonds sold globally are raised in California. This has meant that almond orchards have gobbled up a lot of land; in September 2016 Forbes published a report that pointed to perhaps the worst downside of the land conversion:
[...]
Watson, an assistant professor of geosciences at Eastern Kentucky University, is an expert in remote sensing. She uses satellite images to study agriculture, specifically the interactions between honeybees and industrial agriculture. At the beginning of this year she started a project with one of her graduate students, Larissa Watkins, looking at aerial photos of California almond farms. The goal was to predict how the rapid increase in almond orchards would affect demand for honeybee pollination.
But when they started processing satellite photos of California’s agricultural region taken between 2007-2014, they noticed a surprising trend.
Many areas that were classified as natural land cover—things like grasslands, wetlands and forests—were being converted to almond orchards.
“We were really shocked when we started looking at the data,” Watson says. “I was surprised this is happening in California with all the attention on the drought.”
So Watson and Watkins pivoted, deciding to put honeybees aside and instead quantify the land use changes and how they affected water use.
What they found was shocking: based on their estimates, 23,000 acres of natural land have been converted to almond farms. 16,000 of those acres were land previously classified as wetlands.

[...]
At the time of the Forbes report the research by Watson and Watkins hadn't been peer-reviewed and Watson qualified the findings by noting:
... aerial images can only paint broad brush pictures of what’s going on. Individual pixels in a satellite photo cover almost 1,000 square feet, making it hard to get a detailed understanding of the landscape. The USDA and the state government verified the land classifications in Watson’s data, but wetlands are notoriously difficult to identify via satellite and it’s possible that some of what looks like wetlands in aerial photos are actually flood-irrigated farmlands.
But her preliminary results show that the soaring demand for almonds, and the ensuing boom in almond farming, has had profound impacts on California’s agricultural landscape and water use.
It's not only cropland that's impacted. Wetlands are an important line of defense against the encroachment of ocean water on the land and against storm surges, a defense that had been failing at an alarming pace in California due to several factors, and even before the satellite study:
... more than 80 percent of intertidal habitat around the [San Francisco Bay] that might have been useful as a buffer to rising tides has been lost to development. It has been diked and drained for salt production and farming, or filled, paved and turned into highways, railroads, and sewage treatment plants. ...
From this side of the story, large-scale conversion of California wetlands to almond farming is another straw on the camel's back, and maybe a big straw. 

By the way, a "storm surge" has the same impact on coastal land as a tsunami, the only difference is that "tsunami" is the name given to a tidal wave that results from an earthquake, whereas a storm surge describes waves from a storm at sea/an ocean.

I think all this and much more needs to be weighed before a clever scientific solution risks encouraging farmers to the idea they can have their cake and eat it too: routinely over-pump aquifers and later compensate by flooding fields and orchards.    

********

Riviera wildfires: "All of France is mobilized"

Thousands of tourists evacuated to the beach last night


The photo is from The (U.K.) Sun, which has published scores of photographs of the wildfires and the evacuees, hundreds of whom are British.

High temperature, strong winds, which have been hampering firefighters, and lots of bone-dry brush are fueling the fires along the southern French coast. But there are underlying factors as well; from the following AFP report: 

"Farmland is contracting and the forest is naturally expanding, making the area bushier. A proliferation in the numbers of homes, roads and power lines near forests also increased the fire hazard." 

Another factor is probably the large number of pine trees; pine cones that catch on fire turn into flaming projectiles, quickly spreading forest fire. 

The good news is that so far there have been no human deaths or serious injuries related to the fires. A large number of turtles may have succumbed according to a source quoted in one of the reports today.   

See also the Associated Press report posted around 6 AM ET today.  

Wildfires prompt major evacuations near French Riviera
AFP
July 26, 2017

[see website for video]

At least 10,000 people [12,000 according to The Sun], including thousands of holidaymakers, were evacuated overnight after a new wildfire broke out in southern France, which was already battling massive blazes, authorities said Wednesday.

The new fire broke out a day after France asked for Europe's help to tackle the flames already raging in several spots on the tinder-dry south, including near the popular resort of Saint-Tropez.Firefighters are also battling fires on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica and in Portugal.

About 3,000 of the evacuees in southeast France were holidaymakers staying in campgrounds, some of whom ended up spending the night in sleeping bags on the beach.

"The evacuations, at least 10,000, followed the progression of the fire. It's an area that doubles or triples its population in summer," said a fire service official of the blaze near Bormes-les-Mimosas on the Mediterranean coast.

The number of people on France's Cote d'Azur bulges in July and August as holidaymakers head to the beach, although the area is experiencing an exceptionally hot and dry summer that has made it especially vulnerable to fires.

On Tuesday over 4,000 firefighters and troops backed by 19 water bombers had already been mobilised to extinguish the flames, which have left swathes of charred earth in their wake.

At least 12 firefighters have been injured and 15 police officers affected by smoke inhalation since the fires broke out on Monday, according to the authorities.

The blazes on Tuesday had devoured around 4,000 hectares (15 square miles) of land along the Mediterranean coast, in the mountainous interior and on Corsica.

With strong winds and dry brush creating a dangerous mix, the government asked its European Union partners to send two extra fire-fighting planes -- a request immediately fulfilled by Italy, according to the EU.

But one union official denounced what he said was a lack of spare parts preventing all the aircraft required from being put into action.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb announced on Tuesday that France would be adding six more firefighting planes to its fleet.

'Apocalyptic' scenes

A fire in La Croix-Valmer near Saint-Tropez, a resort frequented by the rich and famous, had been contained, local fire chief Philippe Gambe de Vergnes said Tuesday.

But the blaze had already consumed 400 hectares of coastal forest in an area dotted with homes, he said. More than 200 people had to be moved from the area.

La Croix-Valmer's deputy mayor Rene Carandante described a desolate landscape of blackened headlands fringed by charred umbrella pines, where green forest had once framed the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

"It's a disaster area. There's nothing left," he said.

Francois Fouchier, of the local coastal conservation group, told AFP that local wildlife, such as the Hermann's tortoise, would be victims of the fires. "We are going to find burnt shells."

Around 80 kilometres (50 miles) inland, 300 hectares of pines and oaks went up in smoke near the village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.

A local official accused the authorities of failing to regularly remove dry undergrowth, making the forest a fire hazard.

Corsica, situated midway between France and Italy, was also assessing the damage.

A resident, whose house had at one point been in danger, spoke of "apocalyptic" scenes.

In the end, disaster was averted after the wind died down, but the blaze engulfed 1,800 hectares of forest and burned several vehicles.

In Carros, north of Nice, a house, three vehicles and a warehouse went up in flames, according to regional authorities.

Speaking to France Info radio, local mayor Charles Scibetta described waking up to a "lunar landscape" and said residents had a lucky escape.

Riviera becoming 'bushier'

"All of France is mobilised," the head of the fire service in southeast France, Colonel Gregory Allione, told France Info, adding that extra firefighters had been drafted in from the north.

Thomas Curt, a director at the Irsea institute for research into the environment and agriculture, said a drop-off in farming in southeast France since the 1970s had made it more prone to fires.

"Farmland is contracting and the forest is naturally expanding, making the area bushier," he said.

A proliferation in the numbers of homes, roads and power lines near forests also increased the fire hazard, he added.

In mid-July, a blaze believed to have been ignited by a cigarette butt tossed out of a car ripped through 800 hectares of land near Aix-en-Provence.

Portugal, meanwhile, which last month suffered deadly forest fires, has been battling fresh blazes since Sunday in the centre of the country, forcing the evacuation of around 10 villages.

[END REPORT]

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Thinking smarter: City Greeks return to the farm, nomadic Kenyans learn to grow grasses for their herds, Indian farmers repurpose dumps to store water

Despite the country's mild climate and fertile land, for decades most Greeks opted for better-paying, comfortable, jobs in the city. EU and government agricultural policies that hurt mostly small farm owners, the majority of Greek farmers, resulted in the speeding up of urbanisation with half of the country's population living in the two biggest cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. Land was either left uncultivated or tended to by poorly-paid migrant labourers.
The above is from a great Al Jazeera report titled Why are so many young Greeks turning to farming? It's because they're thinking smarter, that's why. And from what they learned about business from their time in the cities, they're farming smarter than their parents did. 
Thodoris and other young Greek farmers have turned to organic farming as well as processing, bottling, and exporting their products themselves.

For years, Greek farmers didn't brand or bottle their olive oil. Instead, they'd sell it to Italy and Spain in bulk. There, it was bottled and sold as Italian or Spanish olive oil around the world. With the crisis, many Greek farmers decided to stop selling their olive oil in bulk and to instead bottle their own product, create a brand and market it around the world on their own.

"A surplus value is added to our agricultural products when we process and bottle them, so we can make a bigger profit," Thodoris explains. "This keeps us alive."

In the meantime a movement called "Without Middlemen" has sprung up. Since 2012, on sporadic Sundays, producers across Greece bring their products to the cities and sell them directly to consumers, maximising their profits and lowering costs for buyers who have been hit by the crisis.

Many farmers have also created websites to sell their products online. Thodoris sells his on his website and at small stores which promote local products and take less of his profit margin than big supermarkets.

Some have turned to new products like so-called "superfoods," such as certain nuts, berries, and whole grains. "Both in Greece and abroad, quality wins over price," Thodoris says.

Distribution has also changed. "Door-to-door and skipping the merchant are also ways for us to increase our profit," he says. "Everything changes from below, from the people. We go to exhibitions together to showcase our products. We advise each other."
As Al Jazeera explains the big obstacles for these entrepreneurs are Greek bureaucracy, outdated laws, and counterproductive tax increases on farming. But they are well aware of their importance and increasing power as a group:
"We, the young people in the primary sector, have the key to recovering from this economic crisis," Thodoris says. "We can do it, as long as we work together, and work hard."
The reader has to plow through several paragraphs about the problem of rampant cattle rustling arising from hydrological drought in Kenya to get to the point of U.S. News & World Report's Seeds of Success. But finally:
The only solution to the lack of grass, many believe, is to somehow grow more of it.
Elizabeth Meyerhoff, an American-born anthropologist who studied Kenya's Pokot tribe and her Kenyan-born husband Murray Roberts, have lived on the shores of Lake Baringo for decades. For more than 20 years they've been working with local communities to rehabilitate degraded grasslands and introduce the concept of managed, sustainable grazing.
Through their organization, Rehabilitation of Arid Environments (RAE) Trust, they have rehabilitated 6,000 acres around Baringo with natural, indigenous grasses on which different ethnic groups can graze their livestock.
Their hope is that communities will be able to decrease their dependence on naturally growing grass, which is often overgrazed and is easily depleted during times of drought.

Kwopin is a staunch believer in the organization's work. He first obtained seeds from RAE Trust in 2006, and he now harvests grass seeds to sell back to the organization for use on other plots.

"When I first started, people were laughing at me for trying to plant grass in an arid area such as this," Kwopin says. "But as I have succeeded, they have come to realize that it is good to have their own areas" on which to graze.

Kwopin is working to rehabilitate more than 200 acres of arid land, and he expects the grass will cushion his cattle from starvation. Unlike his neighbors, some of whom saw entire herds of livestock die from starvation during the recent drought, all but three of Kwopin's 20 cows survived.
So if you're looking to donate to an organization that goes by the philosophy "Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime," you might want to check out the RAE Trust website.

Now on to India, where Food Tank ("The think tank for food") starts off straight to the point:
The Doba-based Livelihood Program is an initiative of the Rajadighi Community Health Service Society (RCHSS) located in West Bengal, India that is helping small-holder farmers conserve water and mitigate against climate change. Dobas are small human-made pits or ditches that, whilst traditionally used for other purposes, can harvest direct rainfall during the wet season and provide much-needed irrigation to crops during dryer months. The reshaping and conserving of dobas within innovative farming communities in West Bengal has resulted in increased crop health and cultivation, supporting livelihoods and the agricultural economy of the region.
Here's a photo of a repurposed doba:


Researcher/activist Eva Perroni, the reporter for the FT article, then goes on to interview a RCHSS staff person, Shibesh Das, about the Doba-based Livelihood Program and "the impacts of climate change and drought in West Bengal." Here I'm going to jump to the last part of the discussion:
FT: What are some of the successes of the Doba extension program?
SD: Although the Doba extension program was launched in Mangalpura GP of Habibpur block, its success inspired farmers from other Gram Panchayats of the same Block to approach the organization to help them to revive the Dobas in their household lands and develop their own kitchen garden. Due to a resource crunch, the organization is not in a position to help them financially, but assists them to develop an alternative source of income that depended on these Dobas.
As most of the households in this block are small and marginal farmers, scarcity of water has tremendous impact on their agricultural economy. Most of the houses of these farmers are made of mud, and hence small depressions are quite common in their home premises. These depressions were overlooked by the community and were used as dumping grounds.
Today, under the MGNREGA program, some of the community members got these structures rejuvenated and are utilizing its water as groundwater recharge basins, irrigation to kitchen gardens, water provision for household requirements and sanitation purposes among others.
FT: What learnings can you take from this local Doba program to inform policy makers at the national level?
SD: Adapting and mitigating agricultural problems due to climate change is a major challenge, especially in a developing country like India, where the vast majority of farmers are marginal smallholder farmers, less educated, and have significantly lower adaptive capacity. As a result, one cannot expect autonomous adaptation.
There is no single approach to drought adaptation and mitigation, nor does one solution fit all regions or countries. Thus location-focused strategies are desired. Each region (e.g., agro- ecological zone) is unique regarding its geography, topography, socio-economic and climatic conditions; therefore, formulating strategies tailored to each locality or community should be given importance.
Further, strategies could be at different levels of government, for example, regional, national, sub-national and local levels. Adaptation at local level is the most critical issue as local actors are the ones that realize the severity of climate change.
Shibesh Das' remarks should be self-evident but cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solutions have always been endemic in government and development-bank and international aid programs -- with predictable results. But when applied to problems arising from drought, the effects of this approach can be devastating. 

Das' recommendations should and must become the guiding principle for every development and aid organization including ngos and charities that partner with governments and international entities such as United Nations aid programs. In these days of sophisticated computer programs and internet-based research there is no longer an excuse for the cookie-cutter approach to problem solving, especially when the most disadvantaged populations bear the full brunt of mistakes arising from the approach.

All right; we've looked at three places in the world where people are learning to think more intelligently about perennial problems affecting entire populations. More examples abound. Next up, a trip to an almond farm in 
California.

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Madagascar learns that adapting to drought is the new normal

If persistent drought is the new normal, local people are going to have to adapt to it, so as not to risk starvation again. ...

... That’s the thinking behind a package of complementary measures that aid workers are now taking in southern Madagascar to build “resilience.” That is the new buzzword in humanitarian circles: It is seen as a key to ensuring that farmers have something to hold on to when drought strikes again, rather than finding themselves caught in an endless cycle in and out of disaster.

Madagascar skirted famine – barely. Now, it's boosting resilience before drought returns
By Peter Ford, Staff Writer
July 25, 2017
Christian Science Monitor


SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
Where persistent drought is the new normal, communities will have to adapt – a challenge across eastern Africa. But Madagascar’s success, and the lessons that it learned from its brush with disaster, point to how crises might be averted elsewhere. Part 2 of our series on famine resilience.

[Part 1, July  24: In Ethiopia, model drought defenses are put to the test]

JULY 25, 2017 Battered by drought and civil wars, more than 20 million people from Yemen to Tanzania are at risk of starvation in what aid workers call the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. But over the past two decades, nations that once produced searing images of famine's toll have moved to thwart it by strengthening community resilience. Our reporters traveled to Madagascar, Ethiopia, and Somaliland to investigate the daunting challenges as well as the long-term efforts that are saving lives.
Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff - See website for caption
First, they sold their goats. Goats are precious, but not as sacred as hump-back zebu cattle. Then they sold their cattle, too. And finally they sold their kitchen pots. There was nothing to cook, anyway, besides leaves and bitter cactus fruit.
For farmers in Madagascar’s drought-stricken south, this menacing months-long countdown to impending famine last year was measured week-to-week at village markets, where they desperately tried to raise enough money to stay alive and buy seed for one more harvest.
And then the rains would not come, their cassava and sweet potato plants would wither, and the hunger in their bellies forced them back to the markets to sell whatever they had left.
“That’s the true indicator that the south is in real difficulty: when people sell their livestock and their kitchen utensils at rock-bottom prices,” says Dr. Audin Rabemiandriso, who for the past six years has run the health clinic in this dusty, ramshackle town, whose dirt streets are lined with women squatting by small piles of root vegetables for sale. “And last year was the worst that I’ve experienced.”
In international aid jargon, that meant that more than half a million people were enduring crisis-level “Phase 3” food insecurity. Another 330,000 were in even worse shape, suffering emergency-level “Phase 4” food shortages. “Phase 5” is famine.
“People were on the edge,” recalls Elke Wisch, head of the UNICEF office in the Madagascan capital of Antananarivo.
But they did not tip over. Catastrophe was averted. And now, with help from international aid donors and a little rain from the heavens, local farmers and their families are beginning to pick themselves up, rebuild their lives, and prepare to cope better with the next drought.
[VIDEO: BUILDING RESISTANCE AGAINST DROUGHT]
For a next drought there will surely be. The land in southern Madagascar is fertile: just three or four rains ensure a harvest. But farmers cannot count even on that. Droughts, once cyclical, are now semi-permanent. And last year the situation was worsened by El Niño, the weather pattern that made the rains even more irregular and insufficient.
That threw the farmers’ plight into sharper focus, reminding the world of the longer-term affects of climate change: Year by year, the lean season – from the day that villagers run out of food until the day they reap their next harvest – stretches a few weeks longer.
That is a challenge for peasant farmers across eastern Africa. But Madagascar’s success avoiding famine last year, and the lessons that it learned from its brush with disaster, point to ways in which crises might be averted elsewhere if villagers can strengthen their resilience in the face of danger.
If persistent drought is the new normal, local people are going to have to adapt to it, so as not to risk starvation again. Already, they are making changes to ward off the threat of famine, from more frequent clinic visits to keep an eye on kids’ health; to new sources of water and crops; to finding ways to earn a little extra cash, or raise a little extra protein – an egg-laying chicken, perhaps, that could mean the difference between life and death when the next climatic disaster strikes.

Spotting the crisis

If famine was averted this time round, it was partly because scattered rain has fallen on the parched fields in recent months – just enough for some farmers to gather small harvests of corn or cassava. But it was also largely because international aid agencies had long been present in Madagascar, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. They were in a position to spot the food crisis as it crept up, slowly and silently, and well-placed to quickly provide survival rations and other emergency aid.
[PHOTO - Tiny village of Ankilimanara]
But even so, Madagascar’s pitiful infrastructure makes food aid delivery easier said than done. Roads in the south are in catastrophically bad shape, suited better to travelers on foot or on bicycles than to the rare motor vehicles that brave them. Any tarmac that was once laid through the open farm and scrubland has long since crumbled and washed away, leaving red clay highways cloven by mini-canyons that deepen with any rainfall. They are almost impossible for tractor-trailers carrying grain to navigate.
The World Food Programme has been working in the area for 30 years, meaning it could scale up quickly to feed a million people when the situation went critical. But new tactics gave added impact to its aid, circumventing Madagascar’s geographical challenges. Last year, in regions where there was still food to be had, the WFP gave an emergency $20 per month to families to buy what they could find.
“You don’t need trucks to distribute cash, just mobile phone networks,” Theodore Mbainaissem, the WFP emergency coordinator in Ambovombe, says of the mobile money transfers. “It’s a lot more practical.”
WFP also handed out high-nutrition food supplements to moderately malnourished children, so fewer of them fell into the severe acute malnutrition that could kill them.
UNICEF, the United Nation’s children’s agency, saw that food was growing alarmingly scarce as early as 2015, when government doctors and nutritionists, carrying out routine health checks with UNICEF support, began reporting skyrocketing levels of child malnutrition.
Quickly, the agency expanded its nutrition programs to all 193 town and village health centers in the south, screening every child under 5 and making sure the worst-malnourished were given high-nutrition, peanut-based food supplements. “Our first priority was to prevent loss of life,” says José Más Campos, UNICEF’s emergency coordinator for Madagascar. By and large, they succeeded; few children died. 
Generally, aid officials say, international donors reacted quickly and generously when they realized how grave the threat of famine had grown. But often they insisted their money be spent only on emergency cases – a familiar conundrum for NGOs.
That meant, for example, that UNICEF could not use some donors’ cash to treat moderately malnourished children, says UNICEF's Ms. Wisch. “We had to wait until the situation got absolutely critical,” she recalls, when children were suffering from severe acute malnutrition and their lives were at risk.
“We got a good response from emergency aid donors,” says Wisch. “But even if we got people over the hump this time we’ll have another drought in a year or two. What we need is a sustained resilience program … to stop people drifting into the next humanitarian emergency-threshold situation.”
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Behind hunger, thirst
That’s the thinking behind a package of complementary measures that aid workers are now taking in southern Madagascar to build “resilience.” That is the new buzzword in humanitarian circles: It is seen as a key to ensuring that farmers have something to hold on to when drought strikes again, rather than finding themselves caught in an endless cycle in and out of disaster.
“This crisis is about food, of course, but it is mainly about water,” says Mr. Más Campos. “We are not getting enough either from the sky or from the ground.” Clean water, he argues, offers the path from emergency survival to long-term development.
UNICEF has been paying for trucks to deliver water to out-of-the-way villages, which spares residents from having to drink unsanitary surface water. But it is not a lasting solution.
[PHOTO - refurbished water pumping station]
Much more promising is the kind of system the government has set up with UN assistance in the village of Sihanamaro, a collection of simple wooden huts scattered among savannah shade trees, whose farmers scratch a living from land they have cleared of thorn trees.
Here, a solar pump carries clean water from a sealed well up to a water tower, from which it flows to seven community taps around the village, each set in a cement trough and protected by a picket fence.
“This has changed our lives,” says Vaha Saajinuru, a mother of eight who until recently had to walk four or five times a day to get water: down the dirt road out of town, and then across thorny grassland to a muddy pit more than a mile from her home.
The children who drank that water easily fell prey to disease that only made their malnutrition worse. “We knew it wasn’t good for our health but we had no choice,” says Ms. Saajinuru. “Now my kids have no more stomach problems, and there are three taps near my home where they can go to get water.”

A $10 difference

Water is still a problem in , the tiny village where Patricia Soavenira lives in a low-roofed, cramped thatch hut with her husband and four children, sleeping on a mat on the bare earth. But at least she has something to give her family to eat.
Ms. Soavenira is one of 55,000 mothers whose malnourished children make them eligible for a $10 monthly cash handout from a local nongovernmental organization. She spends the money on weekly trips to a market an hour’s walk away, where she buys rice, corn, beans, and anything else she can afford.
[PHOTO - Patricia Soavenira in the doorway of her wooden hut]
“Without the cash, we’d just be eating cassava leaves and wild cactus like last year,” she says, watching a pot on a smoldering fire as she nurses her baby. “I was very, very thin then; very, very weak. And I was very frightened for my children.”
Soavenira had sold all her kitchen utensils except one pot and a spoon. Now she has bought five more spoons and another saucepan. They are only the bare essentials, but she would rather spend her money on food, she says. “We are still hungry.”
The monthly cash handouts are keeping people in Anklimanara alive, but the NGO running the program, the Foundation for Development Intervention, has an innovative, broader vision. Over the next few months it will hand out $60 grants (a small fortune in a country where few earn more than $2 per day) in “getting back on your feet” money.
Recipients will be expected to invest it in some sort of productive project – buying a goat, or planting pigeon peas that need little watering and yield crops repeatedly over three years, for example. Soavenira plans to buy some chickens, she says.
“They could save my life,” she says flatly. “We can eat their eggs, or if one of my kids falls sick I could sell them to get the money for medicine. It means security.”

Resilience made real

Security is all that sweet potato farmer Prinu Rakutunirina wants, too, as he surveys his field of spindly green shoots under a beating sun. But that doesn’t come easy in these parts.
[PHOTO - Experimental crops]
Maybe it was faith or maybe it was desperation, but he stuck with his experimental variety through two crop failures last year, and now he is glad he did. The new strain of tuber, introduced by agronomists with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is more drought-resistant than most. But it was no match for last year’s drought: Starved of water, the plants withered in the dust in July, and then again in September.
But Mr. Rakutunirina finally brought in a harvest last February. And what a harvest. Yields were double what they used to be, he says, and what’s more, the new sweet potatoes last for nearly a year, whereas the old kind rotted after a few weeks. That means he can decide if and when he wants to sell them. It also means he will be able to carry his family through the dreaded kere, the lean season between harvests when there is normally nothing to eat. This is “resilience” made real.
[PHOTO - At a mobile health clinic for malnourished children]
Rakutunirina was part of a pilot group using the new variety. “We all saw our crops increase and now everyone wants to plant this type,” he says, though it will be a year until the 100,000 farmers now using the improved seeds will have harvested enough to spread the variety throughout the drought-stricken south.
“If there is no rain for three months, it does not matter how many high yield seeds you plant,” points out Jean-Etienne Blanc, an FAO field worker. “You’ll get a poor harvest. But farmers are learning about good-quality seeds and how to use them, and next year they will be seeking them out.”
Rakutunirina is a convert. “Everything depends on the rain, of course,” he says. “But this plant can protect us from the return of hunger.”
[END REPORT]
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