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Baobab, Nature's Water Tanks

The Mahafaly plateau in southeastern Madagascar is one of the driest regions in the country. It only rains a few times a year and the little rain that does fall is immediately absorbed by the porous lime soil. There are no rivers, no lakes or any other form of surface water. And yet, some 20,000 members of the Mahafaly and Tandroy ethnic groups manage to live in this hostile environment, despite the huge challenges of such an arid place. Between the 1920s and 1930s the region experienced an extreme drought which led to famine and the death of thousands of people. Those who survived realised that they had to innovate if they were to be able to endure the punishing climate of the arid plateau.

People noticed that baobab trees that had been struck by lightning and subsequently further hollowed out by hand would collect water during the brief bouts of rainfall. The water that gathered in the hollow trunks stayed fresh and, surprisingly, the tree didn't rot as a result since the wood already has a very high water content and is designed to retain water during dry periods. Larger baobab tress can store up to 14,000 litres of water that stays clean and is prevented from seeping out by a new inner bark which grows once the tree has been hollowed out. Having such an ingenious, wholly natural water tank on their doorstep has transformed the daily struggle for this essential resource in the Mahafaly villages and each family is responsible for and guards its own tree.

There are several villages that depend entirely on the baobab tree tanks and Ampotaka, with a population of 475 and 300 tanks, each of which has been given its own name, is a typical village for this region. Each year in June, two or three new trees are hollowed out to create new tanks as the older tanks lead to a slow deterioration of the tree, eventually causing it to collapse in on itself.

To create a good water tank the tree needs to be relatively mature which, when talking about baobabs which can live for over 1,000 years, usually means around 300 years. It takes three people around 10 days of constant hacking and chipping away at the tree's innards to achieve the required volume inside the tree.

Water resources are carefully managed throughout the year. For the first three months, water is collected in the hollow trees and daily needs are met by the water that accumulates in the village reservoir. During the following three months, people look for the 'mangeboka', a bulbous tuber which collects drinkable water underground during the rainy season, and squeeze water out of the roots of the baobab tree ('baboke'). They also forage for wild watermelons which can be heated up to extract their water that can be used for cooking and drinking.

From July onwards, the water tanks that will have filled up during the rainy season are reopened. The water inside the trees usually lasts until October and is used for drinking, cooking and washing. During the last two months of the year villagers have to travel 18 hours by cart to the nearest village where they can buy water. During the driest season of the year, children are washed only once a month, preserving the meagre water supplies for the absolute essentials.

As climate change and ever more frequent droughts have started to disrupts this finely balanced water management system that has been worked out over centuries, the baobab water tanks have become ever more essential for people living in the driest parts of Madagascar. Pascal Maitre, who has been photographing baobab trees across the island for over a decade, witnessed the entire process of preparing the trees to function as water tanks on the Mahafaly plateau.
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