"We are bracing for cyclone season," Xavier Leus, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System in Madagascar, told IRIN. "So preparedness is important, not just for the upcoming cyclone season, but because in Madagascar it's not a matter of if, but when. Here, disasters are predictable: floods and cyclones happen every year."
Cyclone season usually kicks off in December and runs through April, when storms hit some of the poorest regions of Indian Ocean island. Around 70 percent of Madagascar's population live on less than a dollar a day.
Floods are also common and cause displacement of thousands of people every year throughout the island including large urban areas like the capital, Antananarivo.
Earlier in 2008 over 100 people died when Madagascar was hit by cyclones Fame, Jokwe and Ivan. The powerful winds, heavy rains and flooding affected over 340,000 people, of whom 190,000 lost their homes.
2007 was the worst year on record, with six cyclones affecting nearly half a million people, mainly in the central and northern parts of the island; in the parched south drought has persisted for several years.
Invest in preparedness and practice
Madagascar is already more frequently and severely affected by natural disasters than any other country in Africa, and the forecast is not good.
"It is clear that in the context of climate change, Madagascar needs to prepare. The major risks are all weather related: cyclones, floods and drought," Leus said.
"We need to link disaster management to climate change ... to be able to adapt and also to better manage increased risk; for the north and centre of the country that would mean increased strength and incidence of cyclones," and the chronic drought situation in the south would deteriorate even further, he warned.
While extreme weather events have always been part of Madagascar's history, the disaster management community is starting to take a new approach to them. Realising the huge impact that natural hazards have had on development programmes, the focus has shifted from being reactive and limited to response and recovery after an event, to a more comprehensive approach centred on preparedness.
"We know what types of events are bound to happen, and where vulnerable populations are," Leus said. "We can develop scenarios of the possible impact [of a disaster] and prepare, not only before the event, but also for better prepared relief efforts, ensuring that the most vulnerable are protected."
Earlier in November 2008, under the auspices of the national disaster management authority, BNGRC, around 100 participants from national ministries, UN agencies, international and national NGOs, provincial and district authority representatives, and members of the private sector and civil society, gathered to start planning for the upcoming season.
In his opening statement at the event, Col Jean Rakotomalala, Executive Secretary of the BNGRC, stressed the crucial role of preparedness measures such as contingency planning in the response to natural disasters.
The National Contingency Plan and annual disaster simulation exercises have been recognised as invaluable during recent events, and have become examples of good practice in minimising the impact of climate-related hazards.
"The strength of Madagascar's Contingency Plan lies in the fact that it is tested in simulations," said Mateusz Tuniewicz, the Advocacy and Information Officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Madagascar.
"The first version was simulated in 2007 in an effort to bring emergency relief to cyclone-impacted areas in the east of the country; this year's  simulation, co-organised by Madagascar's Civil Protection Corps, BNGRC and humanitarian partners - to be held from 24 to 26 November - will simulate emergency response to floods in Mampikony, in Sophia region [in the North]," Tuniewicz said.
Leus pointed out that great strides had been made, particularly in dealing with the impact of cyclones, but "There is still a long way to go for flooding, and a very long way to go for drought."
Making the case
While the benefits of preparedness have already become clear at a political level and among those in disaster management, the next challenge would be to "mainstream" the concepts in all ministries and create awareness at community level.
Cost-benefit analysis to show the benefit of investing in preparedness would help make the case, according to Leus, while the costs associated with recovery were already clear: a Joint Damages, Losses and Needs Assessment, conducted by the government, UN agencies and the World Bank after the 2007/08 cyclone season, estimated cyclone-related losses at US$334.9 million.
The agriculture, fisheries and livestock sectors suffered the greatest damage, followed by housing, public administration and transport, the report noted, adding that "These sectors are crucial to the livelihoods of the poor in Madagascar, and the impact from the storms has increased the vulnerabilities of large portions of the population."
Communities in Madagascar "are hit by continuous successive events - cyclones, floods and drought", Leus said. This has severely eroded their ability to cope, depleted their resources and made them reliant on external aid. "It becomes a constant struggle and [whole communities] descend back into poverty."