Durban — If climate change makes the vulnerable more vulnerable, as many experts believe, Madagascar can expect to face serious problems.
More than 76 percent of people already live in poverty on the island nation, off the east coast of southern Africa in the Indian Ocean. Just half have access to health services, and a quarter to power.
The population growth rate is 3.3 percent - one of the world's highest - and the island's famed unique plants and animals are rapidly disappearing as a growing generation of increasingly desperate subsistence farmers push into its forests and remote mountains to find enough land to make a living.
Worse, a protracted political crisis since March 2009 and frequent changes of government make tackling even the country's current problems - much less the ones coming - a challenge.
"We are in very deep poverty," Julien Noel Rakotoarisoa, Madagascar's director-general of forests, admitted at the U.N. climate talks in Durban.
Maplecroft, an international risk analysis firm, ranks Madagascar third for "extreme" climate risk in the world, behind only Bangladesh and India, Rakotoarisoa said.
But the country is making a big push to prepare for coming climate pressures - particularly worsening food shortages, drought and stronger cyclones - by revamping policies, integrating government departments, gathering more data, improving early warning systems, adapting its agriculture and building better infrastructure, government and non-government officials said at the climate summit.
OPPORTUNITY TO MOBILISE
Climate change "is a big challenge", said Tiana Ramahaleo, a conservation planning expert with the World Wildlife Fund in Madagascar. "But this mobilisation we haven't seen before. We see climate change as an opportunity to bring everyone together."
Madagascar expects to face a widening range of problems as the world's climate changes. The country has already seen a steady rise in average temperatures since the 1950s, with current temperatures up by between 0.2 and 0.4 degrees Celsius, Ramahaleo said.
Since the 1980s, cyclones have hit regularly, but since 1994, they have become more frequent and fierce, with winds often exceeding 150 km per hour, he said. Scientific models suggest that storm intensity will increase, and cyclones will begin to make landfall further north, in previously unaffected parts of the island.
Deforestation and worsening drought have caused water sources to dry out, cutting hydropower output and crop production. In 2010, an intense drought in the southern part of the country slashed rice production by 60 percent, Ramahaleo said. This year, lack of rain has led to daily power blackouts in the capital, Antananarivo.
Dry periods between rains have been getting longer, from an average of 20 to 40 days each year, Ramahaleo said, creating difficulties for farmers, some of whom are moving into forests to cut trees in an effort to find new, more fertile plots.
Fishermen who use small boats, meanwhile, are battling strengthening "trade winds", which now blow for eight months a year in parts of the island, up from two to three months a year a few decades ago.
"Climate change is already wreaking havoc on many sectors, particularly on people's livelihoods," Ramahaleo said. "Farmers are struggling ... (and) it is very hard for these fishermen to practice their living."
Health problems are also on the rise, particularly as warming conditions push malaria towards the capital's high plateau - once largely malaria free - and as other diseases such as Rift Valley fever and chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus, become more prevalent.
"Climate change is real in Madagascar and we need to face it," Ramahaleo said.
LOW-TILL FARMING, RESILIENT SEEDS
In response, Madagascar's government, backed by a range of non-government groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, is taking steps to try to lessen the coming impacts. In 2010, it issued a new national climate change policy, and for the first time developed an agriculture ministry strategy for adapting farming to new conditions.
It is now promoting - as yet on a pilot-project basis - low-till agriculture techniques to protect soils and soil moisture in the erosion-prone country, and is using new rice "intensification" systems to more than double yields on around 112,000 hectares, which represents 10 percent of the country's rice fields, Ramahaleo said.
Farmers are also trying out seeds resistant to droughts or flooding, he said, and planting trees to help stabilise soil and rainfall.
The stakes are high. National projections show that cultivation of rice, the staple crop, will no longer be viable in most of the country by 2080, although other crops like sweet potato, sugar cane and vanilla may fare somewhat better.
Madagascar is also working to boost the number of weather data-collection stations around the island, which had plunged to 50 from about 1,000 at the end of French colonial rule in 1960, and to share data across government departments dealing with disaster response, desertification, water, agriculture and other relevant issues.
In some areas, particularly the eastern Mananjary region, the country has already made significant progress in reducing disaster risk, thanks to efforts to improve infrastructure. While Cyclone Ivan in 2007 caused 11 deaths there, Cyclone Hubert in 2010 took no lives, Ramahaleo said.
The government now hopes to build on that experience by improving early warning messages broadcast by radio and standards for housing construction.
It also hopes to cash in on carbon markets by protecting forests and preserving "standing carbon" in Makira, a forest area of huge biodiversity in the northeast.
And it sees significant promise in solar - the country has three times as much sunshine as Europe - and hydropower. Currently only 1.3 percent of the country's hydropower potential is tapped, Rakotoarisoa said.
The challenge will be finding financing to expand the country's many small pioneering efforts, experts agreed. "We are specialists in pilot projects," Ramahaleo said. "Now we need to bring them to scale."