Ten years, ten cyclones and a wealth of knowledge: A talk with Christian Razafimahatratra on emergency response and preparedness in Madagascar
In 2007, tropical cyclone Indlala hit the northeast of the country causing severe flooding and heavy damage to infrastructure both on the coast and inland. It was then that Christian Razafimahatratra joined WFP as Logistics Associate. Since then, he has been serving in the Country Office in Antananarivo and worked in ten cyclone responses and in the most recent El Niño drought of 2016.
We spoke with Christian about his work, about the unique challenges humanitarian logisticians face in Madagascar and about the importance of preparedness to mitigate the impact of severe weather on the people of Madagascar.
Christian, can you tell us what you are working on right now?
Currently, I am in charge of all WFP transport services, which amount to over 3,700 metric tonnes of food per month transported across the country in approximately 150 trucks.
I am also the logistics focal point for emergency response and preparedness, which means I coordinate with national authorities on their activities to ensure WFP support whenever needed. My main counterpart is the National Disaster Management Agency, the BNGRC (Bureau National de Gestion des Risques et des Catastrophes).
When an emergency strikes, I work with them and other relevant actors, OCHA for instance, to plan and implement the logistics response. This year it was cyclone Eliakim.
And you also had a rather bad cyclone last year, correct?
Yes, Enawo, a category 4 cyclone which made landfall in the Sava region on 7 March 2017. It caused severe wind damage and widespread flooding throughout the north-eastern half of the country.
I was based in Maroantsetra, one of the hardest hit areas in the northeast for most of the response. I coordinated WFP logistics activities there, and common logistics services for the Logistics Sector in support of all humanitarian responders.
The response was challenging because the most affected areas are rather enclaved, the road network around them in poor conditions and there are only few airstrips of limited capacity.
Our only option was to arrange sea transportation to the two main ports and then, to reach the remote and isolated river communities around Maroantsetra, over 100, we established a system of river transportation using pirogues (dug-pout canoes).
It sounds complex. Is it always this challenging to do humanitarian logistics in Madagascar?
There are quite a few challenges, yes! Madagascar is a cyclone prone country and every year, two to three tropical cyclones hit the east coast of the island. Powerful winds can cause large-scale destruction and serious flooding from heavy rains puts further strains on the population. Towns can remain isolated for days. Then, at the other end of the spectrum completely, we also have the dry season which affects the drought-prone southern parts of the country.
All over the country, poor infrastructure hampers the transportation of humanitarian goods causing delays in the delivery of relief assistance. Most notably is the country’s road network that pose a real challenge to us. It is not very extensive and in remote areas, roads can be in very bad condition and trucks loaded with heavy cargo can find it difficult, if not impossible to pass. However, it is these peripheral regions that require the most assistance. Add to that the fact there are only two railroads covering the whole of Madagascar and what you are left with is a very complex logistical dilemma.
And how do you solve this logistical dilemma?
In any emergency, coordination among humanitarian actors is key to ensure the response is as effective and as efficient as possible, but while we work on improving our capacity to respond to emergencies, in parallel, we need to work on strengthening preparedness, in particular in a country like Madagascar, where one emergency can be quickly followed by another.
This year for example, two cyclones hit the northeast of Madagascar, while plague broke out in the capital Antananarivo stretching east, so we were all working on multiple emergencies at once. While none of these emergencies triggered international assistance, combined they stretched our resources to the limit.
This is why I am so enthusiastic about the Logistics Cluster preparedness project, which we launched last week, and so are our national counterparts. The cluster will work alongside the BNGRC to identify logistics gaps and strengthen national response capacity on the ground. The project will engage humanitarian and development organisations, the private sector and government agencies, drawing on the collective experience of all involved.
It will be a lot of work and a lot of coordination. We will have to step up efforts in data gathering and analysis and we will have to critically review our strategies, but I am sure that it will be worth it. We will work better and we will have more impact which is what humanitarian assistance should be about.