The study confirms what has been feared since scientists began analyzing aerial images in the 1950s and satellite images since 1972. In 1985, when a comparative study of the photographs was carried out, it could be clearly seen that only half of the 7.6 million hectares of tropical forest existing in 1950 had survived. The images made it possible to calculate a loss of 111,000 hectares per year, a trend that was confirmed in 2005: the country had lost a total of 854,000 hectares of forest since 1990.
Uncontrolled agricultural fires, overexploitation of aquifers and indiscriminate logging had triggered a cycle of irreversible soil degradation in most cases. According to recent satellite data, corroborated by scientists in the Nature study in 2012, the rate of forest loss in Madagascar was still increasing.
The degradation of the island’s environment is advancing relentlessly and climate change will exacerbate these pressures. According to the risk consultant Maplecroft, Madagascar is ranked as the third most vulnerable country to climate change in the world, right behind Bangladesh and India.
There is evidence that, between 1961 and 2005, temperatures have increased by 0,2 °C in the north of Madagascar and 0,1 °C in the south. A decrease in winter and spring rainfall accompanied by increases in the duration of dry periods has also been detected in most parts of the island.
Hygiene recedes in a country that seems forgotten
Madagascar’s environmental problems are exacerbated by poverty, which seriously affects its rural population, who are unable to properly manage their agriculture and access to water. According to the World Bank, in 2012 (the year with the most recent data), 77.6% of the population lived below the poverty line of $1.9 per day.
This rate seemed to slightly decrease since that date but other indicators, such as the access to water and sanitation, have continued to worsen and Madagascar is currently ranked 161st out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), a fact little known to international public opinion which perceives the island as a paradise of biodiversity and a privileged tourist destination. But the Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted a severe blow to the flourishing tourism revenues, similarly to those of most countries in the tropical belts.
Little has emerged so far from the statistics of the World Bank on the number of people who practice open defecation, which show that Madagascar is among the 10 countries with the highest rates. 40% of the population (more than 10 million) practices it and there is a clear upward trend: in 2000, it reached nearly 38% of the population, while it exceeded 44% in 2017. Only 17% of the population has access to basic sanitation and only 23% has access to a basic handwashing service.
In Madagascar, 57% of the population depends on surface water or non-improved water points for their supply, which along with open defecation and poor hygiene practices, cause 90% of the diarrhea cases, a disease that is the second cause of childhood mortality in the country.