In January in Madagascar it should rain, and rain a lot. This year is different; much of the country, except the usually dry south, is suffering from a lack of rain. Madagascar is dependent on hydro power and as the reservoirs are drying out, the capital city, as well as other parts of the country, is plagued by power cuts. Farmers have not yet been able to plant their rice seedlings - a real concern in a country where food security is far from guaranteed. There is growing awareness that water can be a limited, and certainly a limiting, resource. The ministry of the environment took out a full page spread in the national newspapers recently, highlighting the connection between water and poor environmental management of Madagascar’s countryside.
At this time of year farmers in Madagascar should be transplanting their rice. The late rain makes this impossible.
There is a growing interest around the world in the concept of payments for ecosystem services - whereby those who benefit from functioning natural ecosystems, help pay the costs of those who manage their land to ensure the natural ecosystems are protected. Examples include farmers in the UK being paid to maintain hedgerows or meadows on their land (funded by the tax payer as society benefits from the improved environmental condition), or forest carbon projects, where travellers can offset the carbon they emit by helping to fund projects that aim to lock up carbon through improved forest management.
This week a workshop was held in Antananarivo to discuss the potential of payments for watershed services to help contribute to improved water supply through funding for conservation of Madagascar’s remaining forests, or restoration of degraded land. The workshop brought together experts from Bolivia, where a scheme known as ‘watershared’ has been operating for many years, with those in Madagascar who are trialling a similar approach and those interested in learning more.
The director general of the Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests Mme Hanta Rabetaliana addressing the workshop.
Mme Hanta Rabetaliana, the Director General of the Ministry of Environment, Ecology and Forests opened the workshop saying “We need to think in a new way about managing our environment in Madagascar. The world is changing fast and we need to respond. Water matters to everyone and everything. We must work with our colleagues in the Ministry of Water to see how these ideas, and the small pilots which exist in Madagascar, can be put into practice at a larger scale.”
The linkages between land use and water supplies are complex and, especially in the tropics, remarkably poorly understood. Dr Ilja van Meerveld from the University of Zurich who has been studying the links between forest cover and hydrology in Madagascar for four years as part of the P4GES project
, says “trees use water so having dense forest in a catchment will tend to reduce the total water available over the year, but this is not always what matters locally. Trees, shrubs and other vegetation, help water sink into the soil slowly. This helps ensure the rivers flow longer into the dry season. It also means overland water flow, which causes erosion and poor quality drinking water, is reduced”.
Much of Madagascar’s high plateau is highly degraded, rain runs off quickly often causing deep erosion channels.
Payments for watershed services schemes fund upstream farmers to plant trees or reduce grazing and fire to allow vegetation to recover. Funding comes from a small tax on water or electricity bills. There are many who feel that payments for ecosystem service schemes turns nature into a commodity and contributes to inequalities. Paying for watershed services may be particularly controversial as water is often seen as a human right or a gift from god. Dr Nigel Asquith from Fundacion Natura Bolivia explained that in their scheme they emphasise reciprocity rather than markets. “The upstream farmers are joining the scheme and agreeing to put their land in conservation at least partly because of a sense of doing the right thing. The philosophy behind Watershared is that people who produce water share it, and people who benefit from water, share the benefits”.
There was a strong feeling at the workshop that this approach has real potential in Madagascar. Tovondriaka Rakotobe from the Association Tany Meva who are working with a small hydro dam in northern Madagascar, due to open next month said “Locally people don’t really want to talk about forest conservation but when you discuss water and electricity everyone is willing to get involved.”
The Mandraka hydro-electricity dam on the high plateau is surrounded by forest, but higher up in the catchment land is highly degraded.
As I write this, clouds are gathering on the horizon for the first time since I arrived in Madagascar two weeks ago. Let’s hope this brings the rain that the farmers, and the power company, so desperately need. However, when the rain does come much will flow rapidly over the island’s degraded hillsides to the sea. Could changes in how the land is managed help reduce future water shortages?