Madagascar

Feature story: "I just don't know how we will survive ..." A population fears for the future

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By Edward Carwardine
Bevary Francois, local councillor for the village of Farahalana in north east Madagascar, points to a gap of about 1 metre in the bridge over the Lokoho river. Battered by torrential rain for two days during Cyclone Gloria in February, the wooden timbers have fallen away in places, making the road to the village of Marojala impassable.

'Look!," he says, "Do you see ? This is what is preventing us from reaching our neighbours, this is what has stopped food from getting to them for three weeks !'

For weeks, no aid supplies have reached Marojala. Six of the seven bridges along the road have collapsed and some parts of the road have turned into muddy swamps no truck could negotiate.

Such logistical problems come as no surprise to anyone who makes the journey down the coastal road to Farahalana from the provincial capital of Sambava. Along a distance of 25 kilometers, the road is covered with floodwater. In some places the waters rises over the wheels of vehicles that attempt to pass through.

Nearly one month after Cyclones Eline and Gloria ravaged Madagascar, there are still whole communities which nobody can access.

Despite the problems, UNICEF and other agencies have been working alongside the government's National Relief Council to get vital supplies to those in greatest need. Within days of the cyclones, UNICEF had mobilised 15 tons of medical supplies, blankets, high energy biscuits and water purification tablets.

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In the village of Ankorabe, Velonary Hostensia has arrived with her three children, aged between eighteen months and eight years, to collect her rations. She will receive 5 kilograms of rice, one kilogram of sugar, a box of high energy biscuits. She says it is not enough. Her family has suffered immensely at the hands of Cyclone Gloria.

'I heard that the rains were coming by listening to the radio,' she explains ' and because our house was not well-built we decided to stay with a neighbour on the night of the cyclone. The rain lasted for two days. Luckily we managed to save our possessions but my husband has lost his vanilla plantation. That was how we earned our money.'

She pauses for a moment, clutching her youngest child in one arm while the other hand grips the small white box of high energy biscuits 'We cannot buy food if we don't earn money. And we need more clothes for the children. They say they are hungry and one of them is already ill.' She points to a skin infection on the baby's arms. 'I am really worried about what is going to happen to us'

There are other concerns in the village as well. Diarrhoeal disease appears to be on the increase. Medical supplies such as oral rehydration salts, which UNICEF has been providing, are therefore life-savers.

The incidence of diarrhoea more than trebled in the first two weeks of March.

In a country where less than 40 per cent of the population has access to clean water and where there is already a major cholera epidemic, it will take time for the full impact of the cyclones on the health of the population to become apparent.

For now, the most important activities are the daily distributions, which have the potential to make the difference between life and death.

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A short drive further along the road from Ankorabe, in the village of Ambohimalaza, Richard Rafaus - a rice farmer - points to the lake that was once his rice field.

'There is no hope for a harvest this season, and I am not sure if we will be able to plant again later this year - the land is so badly flooded seeds will not grow. It is really bad here - even in the normal rainy season you wouldn't see water like this.

"We even have an irrigation system here, but that couldn't handle the amount of water. We have nothing now but what is being brought to us today'

He waves a hand in the direction of the group of distributors who are patiently marshalling a crowd of several hundred villagers.

These distributions are clearly a lifeline. Today, in this one small area, the National Relief Council has delivered over 200 packets of high energy biscuits and several hundred blankets - in addition to several tons of food supplies .

But the enormity of the challenge facing the government and organisations like UNICEF is only now becoming clear. Over 130,000 people remain in urgent need of assistance - more than three times the initial estimate. The imperative for UNICEF is to increase the level of support and to help deliver that support where it is most needed.

Velonary Hostensia gathers her three children around her. Her main concern is how they will manage in the coming weeks and months.

'I just don't know how we are going to survive,' she sighs once more.

UNICEF mission in Madagascar is to help provide down-to-earth answers that will be the building blocks of new hope.

For more information on UNICEF, visit its website at http://www.unicef.org