By Katie Nguyen
BESAKOA, Madagascar, June 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Most days, Hitasoa ignores breakfast and lunch. She is too busy finding enough money to buy food for dinner - and even that is a challenge in Madagascar's dry south, where the worst drought in 35 years has wiped out the maize crop.
"There has been no rain at all. We don't harvest anything. It's worse this year," said the 56-year-old who goes by one name.
Like other women in the region, Hitasoa turns wood into charcoal, hoisting it onto her head to sell at market every day.
"I'm losing my hair from carrying all this charcoal," she said, drawing laughter from friends as she bent her head and pointed to neat rows of glossy plaits. "There aren't even enough trees left."
Drought for a third year running has left more than 1.1 million Malagasy unable to feed themselves, including 665,000 who face severe hunger.
The worst El Nino weather pattern in years has exacerbated the crisis, bringing a new season of drought across southern Africa and fresh hardship to Madagascar, a country that sometimes seems to face no end of plagues, from cyclones, floods and locust infestations to political unrest.
Climate change combined with environmental degradation - more than 80 percent of Madagascar's unique forests have disappeared, half of them since the late 1950s - is only making life harder for people in the south, aid and development experts say.
To deal with hunger worsened by drought, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) and other international aid agencies such as the Catholic Relief Services, are distributing food rations.
But they are also trying to build more on-the-ground resilience to worsening crises. That includes providing seeds bred to produce in weather extremes, new farming know-how and fishing lines to help coastal dwellers exploit the ocean.
Agencies are also buying relief food locally, the better to support local markets. All of the changes aim to help drought-stricken communities more effectively generate food or income that may offer some kind of safety net in the future.
"Food distribution is good in emergencies but it can give the wrong impression. We don't want people just to wait around for help, but build their own resilience," said Victorien Raobsoarimanitrandrasana, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) field office in Ambovombe.
"In the semi-arid areas you only get 600 mm (24 inches) of rain a year. So it is best to make use of climate-smart agriculture and grow other types of crops that require less water."
Maize, sweet potato and cassava were given to Hitasoa's family to grow as part of a project by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) to help around 10,000 households get through the drought.
Poor rains meant the results were mixed but nevertheless, "if there wasn't this project, we would die," Hitasoa said as withered maize stalks crunched underfoot.
Agriculture is a mainstay of Madagascar's economy and rice is the preferred staple, especially in wetter areas. Roughly 80 percent of the population on the island, the world's fourth largest, depends on the land for food and a living.
Diversifying what is grown is a key element of so-called "climate smart agriculture", which aims to help farmers produce reliable crops even in unreliable weather. But the FAO and others are wary about promoting crops that locals may have little appetite for.
"What we're looking for is not to change the habit of the population, knowing that in the south they are used to eating maize and cassava," said Patrice Talla Takoukam, the FAO representative in Madagascar.
"We don't want to add another challenge to the ones they are already facing," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sorghum, which can survive weeks without water, has been discussed as an alternative to maize, but it is unclear whether the local population would consume it, Takoukam added.
"They might produce it but end up selling it in the market. So we will not have resolved the issue because we need to be sure they eat what they are producing," he said.
Part of the answer lies in helping farmers get their hands on improved varieties of the staple crops they prefer - seeds resistant to drought, for instance. But access to them can be a problem.
"The southern portion of Madagascar (is) one of the poorest, one of the most vulnerable (regions)," Patrice Charpentier, an ADRA food security project manager, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"You don't have a lot of (seeds) that are brought from outside because there's not enough incentives for suppliers, who can say, 'I can come here and make good money by selling seeds'," he said.
At another climate-smart agriculture project further south, Adeline Tahiriaza is tending to a large vegetable patch of spring onions, carrots, lettuce, melon and tomatoes. Water comes from a hole dug nearby.
The 20-year-old, who has four mouths to feed, is part of a cooperative supported by the FAO. The cooperative's 18 members are taught the benefits of seeking loans as a group rather than as individuals, and are taught farming techniques to conserve the little water they have.
The plan is to sell what they do not eat.
With her sleepy 16-month-old son tied to her back, Tahiriaza turns over soil around the fragile plants by hand. Tilling the earth like this causes less water to evaporate than ploughing.
"Before we only planted cassava the traditional way," Tahiriaza said. "Now we know how to use other seeds, and take care of the land."
Such knowledge and skills are vital to breaking the cycle of vulnerability but can enough people in the under-developed south tap into them?
"We have some efforts at resilience but are they at scale? And what would it take to get them to scale in southern Madagascar?" asked Dina Esposito, a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development during a tour of USAID-funded projects in the country.
CATCHING UP ON "PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING"
Water access in Madagascar is among the worst in the world.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded Malagasy lawmakers of the fact on a visit to the Indian Ocean island last month, in a speech that drew attention to widespread poverty, high rates of undernutrition and corruption.
The country is only just emerging from a political crisis that ended with democratic elections in 2013, following a coup in 2009 that drove donors and investors away.
As a result, it is difficult for a government trying to catch up on "practically everything" to begin building wells and roads in the south, where desertification is likely to continue with climate change, according to Harrison Randriarimanana, a special adviser to the president.
"In my personal opinion, the south is a difficult region. It's a semi-arid area, which is difficult to develop," said Randriarimanana, a former agriculture minister.
But "it's not sustainable to be forever distributing food aid to this population. We must find another solution," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Madagascar is a big country. We must encourage them to move ... to find better employment prospects and to feed themselves."
However, families that uproot themselves from drought-prone regions and migrate in search of work should not have to do so without support, Randriarimanana said.
"We need to support them and that's where the donors, international community, can help," he said.
(Reporting by Katie Nguyen; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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