Madagascar's Record-Breaking Heatwaves Caused By Humans, Study Finds

Antsirabe in Madagascar (file photo).

For the first time, scientists have conducted a study linking human-induced climate change to prolonged heat waves in sub-Saharan Africa. They studied the exceptionally high temperature recorded in Madagascar in October.

"I was born here in Antsirabe and it's the first time I am experiencing such abnormally sweltering heat," 33-year old Tsiry told RFI.

"The temperature is around 30°C and this has never happened before, even if it is summer in this part of the world."

The town of Antsirabe is located at an altitude of about 1,500 metres, in the central highlands of Madagascar island. It is known for its cool climate in summer, as opposed to the other cities closer to the coast. It's also the coldest town in the country.

November is when the rainy season should have hit the Indian Ocean island but there has not been a drop for the past week, added Tsiry.

The scale of the heatwave that hit Madagascar in October is the worst the island has seen since 1950.

It is a consequence of climate change caused by human activity, according to a scientific study published, on 23 November, by the World Weather Attribution (WWA), a global network of scientists that analyses extreme weather events in real-time.

Madagascar experienced prolonged and relentless heat during October, impacting millions of people. Our latest study investigating the influence of climate change on the heat will be published at 7amCET/ 9amEAT on Thursday. World Weather Attribution (@WWAttribution) November 20, 2023

The study, conducted by 19 scientists from Madagascar, South Africa, Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, said "climate change caused by human activity has raised temperatures by 1 to 2 degrees".

But "a rise of even half a degree can push thousands of people to their physiological limits" and cause deaths, points out Sanyati Sengupta, technical adviser at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

"I have the feeling that the sun is pounding on my head," Tsiry confided from Antsirabe.

Heat peaks are very rarely recorded in Africa, which makes it difficult to accurately study their impact in Madagascar, adds the WWA.

The 19 scientists collaborated to assess to what extent human-induced climate change altered the likelihood and intensity of hot Octobers in Madagascar.

A high degree of informal settlements and unplanned urbanisation have resulted in large parts of the population becoming particularly vulnerable to heat exposure.

"Most of our houses have roofs made of corrugated metal sheets. It is a nightmare inside," said Tsiry.

In Madagascar, less than half of the population has access to electricity and clean water, making common coping strategies in extreme heat inaccessible to a large part of the population.

Brickmaker myth

Elevated temperatures in Madagascar have lead to a decline in labor productivity.

"I am lucky to work in a relatively large office where air circulates but I cannot begin to imagine how people in small spaces are coping," Tsiry said.

According to the report, Madagascar is ill-equipped to face heat waves, "there are no heat action plans, early actions protocols, or comprehensive early warning systems".

The scientists recommend investments in extreme heat forecasting, warning, and response capabilities. "They are the most urgent requirements for Madagascar to better adapt to a warming world."

Tsiry added that there is common belief in Antsirabe that the artisanal mud brickmakers are responsible for the lack of rain.

"Some people blame the brickmakers when there is no rain. They stack piles and piles mud bricks to dry out in the sun. So, the rain is no good to them."

Brick kilns burn for days, adding to the pollution.

"Unless the world rapidly stops burning fossil fuels, these events [exceptionally high and low temperatures] will become more common in the future," the scientists warn.

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