A plea for help from a stranded community

Feature story
By Edward Carwardine

As the helicopter sweeps in over the small town of Mahanor, nestling on the south eastern coastline of Madagascar, the first thing one notices is that virtually every building in the area has lost its roof. Then, as one gets closer to the ground there is a marked absence of vehicles - after the crammed streets of the capital Antananarivo, the lack of traffic is noticeable.

The cause of both these very different observations lies in the effect of two cyclones - Eline and Gloria - which swept through Mahanor at the end of February. Madagascar is no stranger to cyclonic storms, but local people here tell you that these two are amongst the worst in recent years. The high winds of Cyclone Eline, which reached up to 120km an hour tore through the town, ripping off roofs and knocking down walls.

Photo: unloading UNICEF-donated cartons of high energy biscuits and emergency health kits from a helicopter, in the south-eastern town of Mahanoro in Madagascar, one of the areas worst affected by cyclones.

Outside the town's bank, a piece of the roof can be seen perched some twenty meters up in the branches of a tree. Cyclone Gloria brought two days of torrential rain, flooding the lowlands close to the coast and cutting off roads into the town. Hence the lack of vehicles; most of those which can be found in the town have been here since before the cyclones, including two taxis from Antananarivo which have been stranded here for three weeks.

The flooding of the roads has been the root of one of the key problems faced by those charged with dealing with the crisis. The only method of bringing in vitally needed supplies has been by air. Until now, aid agencies have had access to only two cargo planes and a handful of helicopters and small planes. Marahano received its first delivery of aid just four days ago - more than a week after the last cyclone hit the town. Even though supplies of food and medicines are now arriving each day, the problem remains of how to get these to outlying villages and hamlets. The main highway which connects Mahanor to other towns along the coast is blocked by flood water, or is too badly damaged to accommodate heavy trucks.

UNICEF has responded to the emergency here with urgency. It was the first agency to get essential supplies into the country and out to the affected areas. Within four days of Cyclone Gloria on 29 February, over 15 tons of aid was being shipped into Madagascar, along with local purchases of blankets and water purification tablets.

To date, UNICEF has arranged the supply of 120 emergency health kits, 36 supplemental drugs kits, 21,000 cartons of high energy biscuits, 47,000 cotton blankets and over 700,000 water purification tablets. But the full scale of the emergency has yet to be gauged. Initial estimates put the number of people affected at over 500,000. Some 10,000 people are thought to have been made homeless, and 12,000 people physically isolated by floods and damaged roads.

To ensure that accurate data is received as soon as possible, UNICEF is supporting the Government of Madagascar's assessment missions to the affected areas; one team has spent the last five days in the north east of the island, undertaking detailed investigations even in marooned communities, walking through the flooded areas to assess the impact of the cyclones on people's health, nutrition, and living conditions. Only when this information is brought back to the capital can the full extent of the damage to communities and local infrastructure be calculated.

Dr. Sergio Soro, UNICEF Representative in Madagascar, is quick to stress that the organisation has not waited for these reports to be received. "We know from previous cyclones both here and elsewhere in the world, that communities have essential needs after a disaster of this nature. Clean water, food, health and shelter are the priorities and that is why we decided straight away that we would get these supplies out to the affected areas even while the official assessment missions were at work."

The importance of this rapid reaction is not lost on Mahanor's Deputy Prefect Mr. Tack Nestor. "I have seen nothing like this ever," he says gravely. "This is the worst cyclone I can remember. Look around - every building here has been damaged. Don't even ask me to give you numbers, it's too many. We need to get the road open again, that is the main priority - until then we will rely upon help from the air." He stops to gesture to the pile of cartons that lie in the middle of the football stadium, now the town's heliport. "This assistance from UNICEF has been essential. Above all we need basic food supplies, but the high energy biscuits are also important for children, who have more nutritional needs."

Mahanor is trying to get back onto its feet. All around the town, local people are busy repairing their homes, despite the fact that local materials such as palm fronds have been rendered almost useless by the storm. The recent deliveries of aid mean that for now, there is enough food in the town to prevent hunger. But it is a different story in the surrounding villages. A kilometer from the centre of Mahanor, the main road to the next village of Menagisa is blocked by fifty meters of waist-high water. As we watch, a young boy appears in the flood, carrying a bicycle over his shoulder. He introduces himself as Celestin Bototsara, and he has walked the twenty kilometers from Menagisa, bringing the news that people there are running short of food.

"All the rice fields have been flooded," he explains "And the crop is destroyed. We have eaten all the fruit and berries from the trees and now we are eating what we find on the ground. Soon I think we will start eating the roots of plants."

There is no clean water in the village, Celestin tells us. They are worried about disease. "I think five children have bad diarrhoea" he says. Amongst a population of just 200 people, that is an alarming signal. "We need food, we need clean water, we need help," he concludes simply.

Until the roads are re-opened, and villages like Menagisa are reconnected with the outside world, the only source of the help that Celestine is pleading for is that which UNICEF and its partners are providing. In the coming days, a fuller picture of the emergency that has shaken this beautiful island will become apparent. The fear of everyone here is that this picture will be far from pretty.

For more information on UNICEF, visit its web site at