Madagascar capital

How Madagascar Is Confronting Climate Change

Madagascar is an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa that, despite its lush vegetation and unique flora and fauna, grapples with formidable environmental challenges, from rising sea levels to the excessive exploitation of natural resources. Joan Razafimaharo is an architect deeply involved in sustainability, climate change, and adaptation efforts in Madagascar and the broader Indian Ocean region. Razafimaharo is also one of only about sixty architects in the country, serving a population of 28 million. Recently I spoke to her about environmental activism in the face of climate change, curbing the exploitation of natural resources, the role of architects in resource-scarce societies, and empowering women in isolated areas. The interview, originally conducted in French, has been translated and edited for length and clarity.

MAJ: Mathias Agbo, Jr.
JR: Joan Razafimaharo


Can you provide an overview of the current environmental and climate challenges facing Madagascar and the larger Indian Ocean region?


Our region is extremely vulnerable to climate change, because of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Similar to El Niño in the Atlantic Ocean, this phenomenon is characterized by an irregular oscillation in water temperature that leads to intense rainfall, cyclones, and floods, as well as periods of cooling that cause droughts, like those in the regions of Androy and Anosy in southern Madagascar, or fires in Australia on the other side of the ocean. It’s through these disasters, which have killed hundreds of thousands of people, that the Malagasy population has begun to become aware of climate change. Our country, which emits very little greenhouse gas but overconsumes its biomass through forestry exploitation, was particularly affected in 2023. Cyclone Freddy, one of the deadliest cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere, crossed the Indian Ocean, Mozambique, and Madagascar for a record-breaking 37 days, causing massive damage.


madagascar map

Rapid urbanization has become the hallmark of most cities and towns in Africa. What climate impacts are most pronounced in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, and how are they affecting local communities and ecosystems?


The territorial size of urban centers varies greatly from one country to another. In the Mascarene Islands, such as Mauritius and Reunion, urbanization is well advanced. Mauritius, for example, is evolving toward smart urban centers built on former sugar plantations. This country has completely transformed its economy, moving from an industrialization phase focused on textiles and sugar production to an economy geared toward tourism. In this third decade of the 21st century, the island’s planners are moving toward a more ecological approach, with an emphasis on renewable energy. The introduction of the Metro Express, a light-rail public transport system, has been a significant step forward, carrying 54,000 passengers per day, complementing the existing bus network. Mauritius has also made considerable efforts in terms of sustainability, especially with the creation of the Green Building Council Mauritius, which aims to reduce dependence on air conditioning and mitigate the effects of urban heat islands.

Since the end of French colonization more than 60 years ago, many cities in Madagascar have not had the means to counter the effects of rural exodus. Although very modest real estate operations initiated by the state have managed to capture land in the city center and build housing estates, the housing needs for the entire country are more acute, estimated at 1,750,000 in 2019. Far too many cities are imitating Antananarivo, the capital, in their expansion strategy. We find hundreds of hectares of land being filled to make way for unplanned sites, disregarding all sanitation issues and dedicated to single uses, ignoring any idea of urban diversity. The case of Antananarivo and its heritage Betsimitatatra plain, which was once 100% rice-producing, is at the heart of all concerns, because every year during the wet season, tens of thousands of people living in the slums of the lower town are affected by disasters and suffer from a “programmed” precarity.


What influence does the architecture industry have on climate change discourse? Are there any notable sustainability and climate-change adaptation initiatives or strategies being driven by architects and other built environment professionals in Madagascar?


It’s in situations of extreme precariousness that architects intervene. Imagine six months of rainy season under increasingly intense and frequent cyclones impacting territories with growing social and environmental disparities. Having had the chance to work or frequently visit these regions, I’ve found a common denominator in the strength of character of my fellow architects: faced with challenges beyond the means at their disposal, they do not lack originality in creativity and especially keep in focus the quality of life of the users. With fewer than 60 architects in Madagascar, all trained abroad as we do not have a school of architecture recognized by the UIA-UNESCO Charter, the sector must rely heavily on engineers whose responsibilities too often encroach on the profession of urban planning and especially that of the architect. Imagine for 28 million inhabitants where the built environment has no trace of its past except for a few pastiches and does not stand out for its will to overcome the challenges inherent to the city. On the issue of coastal erosion, heritage preservation, and activist spirit, I would like to mention a profile whose architectural designs and urban interventions reflect their commitment. Noely Ratsimiebo, a DPLG architect based in Fort-Dauphin on the southeast coast of Madagascar, displays the honesty of respecting the imperatives of the genius loci while giving a human dimension to the intervention of institutional or private clients. The architectural language used remains deeply rooted in the poetry of the materiality typical of the region. 

Architects on Réunion Island operate under a very restrictive legal framework, but one so beneficial for the planet. The RTAA-DOM [Réglementation Thermique, Acoustique] is a building code based on a program framed by the French government for the construction and renovation of the housing stock of its departments, and aims to align the performance of buildings with bioclimatic principles and good design. When we see the results of architectural competitions launched by institutions, it’s exemplary and inspiring. Even for the construction of public schools, participants strive for a high level of innovation despite a heavy set of regulations. For example, principles of natural ventilation are mandated in the design: “the ventilation regulation is in place to ensure indoor air quality … air must be able to circulate freely. And this, without resorting to an external mechanical system.”\

And here’s where Madagascar loses out, because our codes—although they’ve been updated in the last decade, for the first time since independence in 1960—remain poorly adapted to the climate or environmental emergency. The efforts made since 2020 by the Madagascar Bureau of Standards, a commission composed of university researchers and local suppliers to standardize the manufacturing of compressed-earth bricks, have not yet produced a ministerial decree that would curb the excessive use of cement blocks and wood-fired bricks by giving precedence in the market to a competitive and ecological product. Therefore, in a country where construction originally in wood and plant materials was replaced by fired clay upon the arrival of English missionaries, the tradition of exploiting forest resources will continue.

Madagascar harbor front

Port of Moroni, Comoros. Comoros was hit by Cyclone Kenneth in 2019, but communities worked together to recover from the damages. They showed resilience, and even though the society is traditional they’re looking to the future and taking advantage of this setback to go further. The seaport is a heritage site with mosques, bangwe (community places mostly under trees), palaces, and the souk (market).


How are local communities actively participating in sustainable practices and climate change adaptation? 


It is commonly believed that development necessarily involves government intervention and regulation. However, history has shown that sustainable initiatives often emerge from the communities themselves. A striking example is that of the Barefoot College in Madagascar. We organized an ecological housing competition in 2023 with WWF Madagascar, won by the architect Miora Raharivelo, which was able to integrate ecological and sustainable principles known but little explored in Madagascar for modern constructions, including rammed earth. It is by observing this program, highlighting the responses to climate change, that I was able to discover another way to develop the country but in a completely different field than architecture. In Madagascar, the Barefoot College focuses on the empowerment of women in isolated rural areas. The innovative aspect lies in the integration of women into a comprehensive training program to learn how to manage solar energy, including the manufacturing and maintenance of solar panels. Imagine women, mostly illiterate and who have never left their villages, becoming “solar engineers” after several weeks of training. I have personally observed their evolution over four years. Beyond acquiring technical skills, the program has instilled in them an entrepreneurial spirit, preparing them to play a more significant role in their village.


Are there any challenges in engaging communities in sustainable practices and climate adaptation, and how can these be addressed?


This case illustrates several inspiring themes. First, the program is decentralized, as opposed to the norm that centralizes everything in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. The Barefoot College center is located in Ankaratra, a tourist region, allowing women to discover their country and identify with realities similar to those in their own regions. Moreover, the program encourages ambition and self-improvement. The Order of Engineers of Madagascar challenged the use of the term “engineer,” which led to a public debate and increased visibility for the program. This debate highlighted society’s reluctance to accept a high technical status for semiliterate women, even though they are the only “engineers” in their villages. Finally, this case demonstrates that it’s not necessary to have enormous resources to run a successful program. Each year, millions of dollars are invested in development aid for poor countries like Madagascar, but little is done to systematize prevention and training, like the Barefoot College. It’s possible to enable disadvantaged social strata to develop valuable skills, thus freeing them from dependence on state and international aid, on assistance. As Bunker Roy, the founder of the Barefoot College, said, it is by giving the poor in rural regions access to practical technologies that we demystify these technologies and make them accessible to villagers.


Madagascar boardwalk

Waterfront of Libanaona, Fort-Dauphin, Madagascar. Architects: Noely Ratsimiebo. The site was damaged when a telecommunication conglomerate laid cable along the waterfront. The outcry from community groups prompted the city to invest (with the financial support of the telecommunication company) in the design of a new waterfront with universal access, adapted to landscape and traditional urban practices.


Looking ahead, what are the key priorities and challenges in ensuring long-term sustainability and climate resilience in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean region? What role can individuals, communities, governments, and international entities play in shaping a more sustainable future for the region?


Remarkable examples of resilience to climate change have been observed in neighboring regions within the same basin, particularly in Southeast Asia, the region from which the populations of our islands originate through their Austronesian link, and where certain aspects of Austronesian culture are still preserved. The 2004 tsunami, one of the most devastating events in the Indian Ocean, marked a turning point in the approach and paradigms related to the built environment. The responses of governments, civil society, and citizens to this disaster have deeply influenced future practices. Currently, many funds are initiated by donors to support these regions. Taking Madagascar as an example, one can cite the city of Morondava, constantly threatened by flooding, where efforts are not limited to traditional infrastructure projects, such as coastal erosion control and sanitation. These projects are also inclusive and often based on participatory consultation with citizens. Diverse groups within the community, such as women, people with disabilities, youth, the unemployed, and other categories, have been involved in rethinking their city. When collective responsibility is embraced, initiatives are adopted and implemented in line with local needs. 

For countries such as Madagascar, where a large part of the population is young and lives in rural areas, it’s essential to adopt a pragmatic approach in terms of urban planning and construction technology. In our country there’s an almost forgotten tradition of “iray petsapetsa,” which means “on the same swampy ground.” Maintaining a certain level of control and quality standards is crucial, as in the time of King Andrianampoinimerina, who imposed the maintenance of canals and the respect of the schedule of works in the rice fields: “If someone upstream obstructs the flow of water, preventing it from reaching downstream, they will be fined three oxen and three piastres, even if it is one of my relatives or a high-ranking individual.” Now what was once a collective effort, such as cleaning the canals in a valley, has become a series of individual actions, leading to conflicts in water management.

Madagascar has lost precious time by following inappropriate development models. In the current context of the climate crisis, a return to traditional values, while modernizing them with current technologies, would be highly beneficial for the population. The extension of these issues to neighboring islands reveals that multiple sources of conflict arise from tensions related to critical environmental issues, such as water scarcity, sea level rise, volcanic threats, coastal erosion, and the increased frequency and intensity of cyclones. Take the example of the Seychelles, which due to their lack of space, heavily depends on the importation of resources. This highlights the importance of a collective consciousness in commercial exchanges and the sharing of good practices. It highlights the need for regional collaboration and a community-based approach to effectively manage natural resources and meet environmental challenges on these vulnerable islands.

Featured image: Antananarivo, Madagascar. Photo by Joan Razafiamaharo.


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