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Madagascar: Tiomena, the red sandstorm and its impact on Tandroy people

20 June 2023

Tiomena is a strong wind that blows from the sea, inland into the lands of Androy in southern Madagascar. Tiomena starts at Analapasy, which is its epicentre, from where it blows to the villages of Sampona, Maroalopoty, Maroalomainty before entering Ambovombe and Erada. In total, up to 200 kilometres of land are affected by this gusty and often troublesome wind. In recent years, the wind has been known to affect not only southern Madagascar but the island as a whole.  

Tiomena is caused as warmer temperatures result in drastically different atmospheric pressures between sea and land. As the land warms up, air masses from the Indian Ocean are swiftly drawn into areas with low atmospheric pressure on land. The problem is that strong winds like the Tiomena cause significant damage inland. Soil in this part of Madagascar is red. The red dust is carried by the wind, which gives rise to the Tiomena – tio means ‘wind’ in Malagasy and mena means ‘red’. 

In short, this is what climate change, and the water crisis, looks like in southern Madagascar. 

Southern Madagascar is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis driven by drought and food insecurity, to the extent that 3.3 million people are in need of assistance in the Grand Sud and Grand Sud-Est regions, according to the September 2022 Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). Furthermore, an estimated 2.2 million face acute food insecurity; 479,000 children are acutely malnourished and persistent drought in the Grand Sud has displaced more than 90,000 people between January 2019 and November 2022, according to the International Organization for Migration.

A woman holds part of a dead corn plant in a field covered with red sand, in Anjeky Beanatara, Androy region, Madagascar. 11 February 2022. Credit: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis.

The following is an edited version of a conversation held between Emilien Rakototronandasana and Paubert Tsimanaoraty Mahatante, community leader and member of the Tandroy ethnic group of southern Madagascar. Paubert Tsimanaoraty Mahatante is also a climate expert at the University of Toliara. 

Today, the population of Tandroy is 900,235 inhabitants, according to the general census held in 2018. The population increase rate was estimated at 2.7 per cent per year, according to the 2005 regional development plan.  

Our hope with this case study is that the voices of indigenous communities directly and profoundly impacted by climate change and water scarcity in Madagascar will be amplified, and that we can help vocalize the priorities and needs of a community that is largely marginalized and made invisible within Madagascar and in the broader African context. 

‘It is important that authorities listen to us, the indigenous people of Madagascar, to help address the water and land crisis that is affecting our communities.’

Emilien: Tell us about the Tandroy indigenous community. 

Mahatante: I am a member of the Tandroy indigenous people of Madagascar. We are nomadic, and we live in Androy, a region of southern Madagascar located between the Mandrare River, bordering the Anosy region to the east, and the Menarandra River, bordering the south-west region. They say Androy is the poorest region of the Big Island, and it is considered among the most disadvantaged areas of Madagascar. For our ancestors or elders, Androy means or designates the village of origin. Especially when someone wants to return home, Androy is what we call someone’s village of origin. We do not want to leave our homes because of this wind. We want to stay. This is where we come from. 

Emilien: What else would you like to share? 

Mahatante: There is regular drought and food crisis here in Kere, as some call the Androy region. We who live here have had to migrate to the north. In the area of Tanandava within Amboasary Atsimo District, all the residents have abandoned their village. Entire houses were buried in the sand. 

Emilien: So, the Tiomena wind is a major a threat to your people? 

Mahatante: Tiomenas in southern Madagascar used to blow from mid-May to mid-October. Now, however, it blows almost all year long. We need to find ways to control the wind, because the wind is causing desertification and destruction.

Sand begins to surround houses close to the town of Ambovombe, Androy region, Madagascar. 15 February 2022. Credit: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis.

Emilien: What is the cause of Tiomena? 

Mahatante: What causes the Tiomena is the warmer climate. The hotter it is, the worse the wind blows. It is a physical law. Faced with this situation, the problem for us here in Madagascar is that we rely on what our farms produce, and especially in the southern region, we use the plough. Since 1966, FAO [the UN Food and Agriculture Organization] has tried to mechanize agriculture so that we no longer have to do manual agriculture and especially so that we increase production by two to three times, so that we can achieve food self-sufficiency.  

Emilien: Has the wind affected food production and the availability of water? 

Mahatante: Of course. Everything is dry now. The wind drives the water away. Remember that the plough removes vegetation cover from the surface. That is, the herbs are removed by the plough. Suddenly, the ground becomes bare and exposed because of the Tiomena. When the land is exposed, there is nothing to protect it. The land cannot even store the little water it receives. So, when the wind passes, it causes what is called wind erosion. Here, where we live, the soil is called lateritic soil, which is red. The lumen, the tiny red dust, is carried by the wind. So, the dust covers the fields and water sources, burying everything. The other problem is that the wind dries up the land, turning our lands into desert.  

Emilien: Are there ways to restore the damage caused by the Tiomena on the ground? 

Mahatante: There are three things we could do about Tiomena. First, we need to focus on the installation of windbreaks. We need to put windbreaks in place – a lot of windbreaks. If we do this, the wind speed will decrease. Second, agroforestry could also be done. That is to say, we need international support to plant trees in our community at the same time that we encourage everyone to do subsistence agriculture, not only within our indigenous communities but throughout southern Madagascar. Finally, the realization of large-scale reforestation allows the restoration of water sources, which can help reduce the temperature on the ground, which also reduces the difference in air pressure that causes the wind. If we put these three actions in place, we will reduce the wind.

Only these three solutions could stop the Tiomena. They are simple solutions. They are part of a way of life that our indigenous forefathers and mothers here in Tandroy have followed for thousands of years, but which have been forgotten by many people in Madagascar. It is important that authorities listen to us, the indigenous people of Madagascar, to help address the water and land crisis that is affecting our communities.

We are grateful to members of the Southern African Non-State Actors platform in Fisheries and Aquaculture (SANSAFA/SADC) for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Two men bathe in rainwater, along the RN13 (National Road 13) near the town of Ambovombe, Androy region, Madagascar. February 14, 2022. 14 February 2022. Credit: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Emilien Rakotonandrasana

Paubert Tsimanaoraty Mahatante