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Antananarivo: A city of contradictions

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Antananarivo: A city of contradictions

The capital of Madagascar is an old and unique city. But its hilltop charm also creates severe challenges to the city’s infrastructure as it has expanded. And, as Nanjala Nyabola reports from Antananarivo, the annual rainy season pushes this city of striking vistas to its limits, exposing both its best and worst aspects.

You can tell a lot about a country by its capital city. The state of the town will be a rapid immersion into the best and the worst of the country. For many African countries, the capital city presents an unholy melding of the sacred and the profane: greed and generosity; stagnation and progress; life and death. Antananarivo falls squarely in this category. With increasing intensity, as one moves away from the Ivato International Airport, the city’s contradictions and complications are immediately apparent. Slowly rebuilding from the political crisis in 2009, construction is on the up in various corners, and local industry is slowly rebounding from the many closures resulting from the coup. Even so, as environmental pressures mount in rural areas, the city’s growth threatens to outpace its ability to adapt.

Indeed, the Malagasy capital is a story that has outgrown its original concept. Established in the 17th century, as the capital of the island’s Merino people, its elevated position was a vantage point for the various raids conducted on nearby communities. Settlements in high places make sense when you need to plan attacks on and defend against low-lying neighbours or when you need to retreat to an easily defendable position. They make less sense when you and all your neighbours are unified under a single flag. Although two symbols of Merino royalty – Manjakamiadana, the Queen’s Palace and the Prime Minister’s residence – continue to dominate the city’s skyline and tourism industry, the city’s ancient strategic advantages are today some if its biggest obstacles.

Antananarivo’s overtaxed infrastructure is struggling to cope with the capital’s ever-expanding population, and urban planning has not kept pace with the city’s growth: expansion focuses on precariously overlaying contemporary construction with older buildings. Significantly, Antananarivo is a city that is knocked to its knees every time it rains. And during the Malagasy rainy season that runs from December to April, it rains a lot.

The rainy season is the earliest part of a yearlong weather pattern that culminates in the monsoon rains in the Indian sub-continent. It means that for five months, torrential rain will lash Antananarivo practically every day, for up to 24 hours a day at its zenith. Periodically, as has happened this year, a cyclone or tropical storm also hits the city; high winds toppling trees and blowing away roofs, knocking over the many shantytowns that dot the city. Across the three ridges on which most of the city is strewn, thousands of litres of rainwater will collect, powering through precariously placed houses, bursting open sewers filled with garbage, gathering silt, ripping open just-repaired tarred roads before collecting in the many rice paddies in the basins between the hills.

Flooding in Antananarivo is so regular that the Ministry of State that oversees infrastructure has a permanent agency dedicated to managing flooding in the city (Authority for the Protection against Flooding in the Plains of Antananarivo – APIPA in French). And, every year APIPA is forced to concede that the city’s infrastructure is unable to manage the threat of flooding effectively.
As at 1 February, 75,000 people in Madagascar had been displaced or otherwise affected by this year’s rains and particularly by the battering of Tropical Storm Chezda; an estimated 20,000 in Antananarivo alone. Camps for internally displaced persons have been established across the city, but the response has been compromised by poor coordination and a tentative “wait-and-see” approach to the season, as more storms are expected.

Aside from geographical considerations, unregulated construction is a major culprit in Antananarivo’s flooding problems. Owing to Antananarivo’s geographical aspect it’s impossible not to notice all the properties entirely cut off from access roads, which can be seen everywhere except at the very top of the highest hill. Antananarivo’s roads wind to accommodate the hills and construction consequently attempts to accommodate that – creating a haphazard layout that makes it difficult to expand services like roads. Thus during the rainy season, many parts of the city fed by steep staircases and narrow paths are inaccessible, except by the most intrepid pedestrians.

The haphazard parcelisation of land has also made it difficult to manage the topsoil in the city, and when it rains, litres upon litres of silt batter motorists navigating the already perilous, winding roads. These challenges would be trying enough for any urban authority – Antananarivo’s struggling public sanitation only complicates things further. As the rainwater snakes down the city, angry waves bearing silt, plastic bottles and paper bags will mostly be deposited on the city’s roads as the drainage system is unable to handle them.

Communities in the basin areas, where all the water collects after it has descended the hills, bear the brunt. Areas like Soixante-Sept and Anosipatrana, built close to the Ikopa River, suffer annual displacements during this season. Curiously, a lynchpin of Antananarivo’s drainage system is the rice paddies at the centre of the city. These paddies, established in the pre-colonial era, are an innovative way to make use of the voluminous rains that fall on the plateau.

However, it’s not just rainwater that is collecting in the rice paddies, but also sewage and trash. The urban farmers who cultivate the paddies, including many children, are therefore particularly vulnerable to sanitation-related diseases. Although the water that flows through the paddies is not stagnant and, therefore, does not breed anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria, it is not safe for consumption, even though it’s fairly common to see day labourers or children fill empty plastic bottles there.

Antananarivo’s response to these and other urban planning challenges is encouraging and discouraging in equal parts, perhaps reflecting the start-stop nature of the country’s politics. The city’s administration is well aware of the challenges and has put in place a significant response system. APIPA issues colour-coded alerts to city residents on the risk of flooding and various agencies provide emergency shelter and rations to the displaced. City residents generally adhere to these warnings. Minor landslides and significant road damage are typically addressed within a 24-hour period, and medium-term damage is generally addressed after the rainy season.

These are stopgap measures and do little for the long-term risks posed by the crumbling infrastructure. Indeed, APIPA cited construction over drains as the chief obstacle to their flood prevention initiatives. Similarly, soil management systems are yet to be implemented in the higher parts of the city to prevent landslides.

And the problems grow increasingly complex. Like any city constructed in the hills, Antananarivo’s space for expansion is significantly restricted. The rural-urban wealth gap in Madagascar and significant migration encouraged by lack of infrastructural investment in other parts of the country continues to bring in individuals who cannot effectively be absorbed into the urban economy.

As Antananarivo is far less economically segregated than cities like Nairobi or Johannesburg, informal settlements back directly onto upmarket apartment blocks and gleaming Mormon temples; the gunny sack/corrugated iron sheet shacks of those who work the rice paddies are visible from almost every angle.

In some ways, the Antananarivo story is a good one. The city’s public administration is interested in solving citizens’ problems, and with a concerted urban planning focus some of the bigger questions can be addressed. Importantly, this is a city that doesn’t shy away from its complications, or attempt to hide them under a veneer of respectability for the benefit of outsiders: Antananarivo is a city that will be loved on its own terms. The egalitarian character is a great starting point for initiatives like massive public housing projects or road construction. And the city’s residents are ready and waiting for a change – in the press and on social media, there is increasing frustration with the infrastructural problems. The opportunity exists and must be taken, as without a more systemic response there is a grave risk that the city will be overtaken by its infrastructural problems, and there will be little left to love.

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Written by Nanjala Nyabola

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst currently based in Antananarivo, Madagascar. She writes regularly for Al Jazeera, The Guardian and other publications, and provides analysis on political issues in Africa for various radio and television outlets in Kenya, the US and the UK. She holds a BA in African Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham, an MSc in Forced Migration and an MSc in African Studies, both from the University of Oxford, and a JD from Harvard Law School. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.

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