A Changing Climate, People on the Move, and the Spread of Disease

Grandidier's baobab (Adansonia grandidiera) at dawn near Andavadoaka, Madagascar. February 2016. Photo by Amy Winter.
Grandidier’s baobab (Adansonia grandidiera) at dawn near Andavadoaka, Madagascar. February 2016. Photo by Amy Winter

On the southwest coast of Madagascar, the sun burns bright and fierce over white-hot sands and turquoise seas. The plants are small and spiny and hardened against the relentless drought—they store water over long periods in bulging baobab trunks, and open their stomata to drink in CO2 only sparingly in the relative cool of the night.

The people of the southwest too, are dark and weathered and wiry—in the jumbled diversity of ethnicities that characterize the Eighth Continent, they identify as members of the Bara, the Mahafaly, or the Antandroy tribes, and they speak a slurring dialect of Malagasy quite distinct from the nasal twang of the Highlands to which my ear and tongue are trained.

Year by year, as the summer rains come later or not at all, these people of the southwest, the Atsimo-Andrefana, increasingly abandon futile attempts at farming to take to the only livelihood available—that of the sea. There, their ethnic ancestries fade into memory, and they assume the nomadic identity of the Vezo. The changing climate changes where these people go and who they interact with. And that raises interesting questions.

New Research

It’s been a long while since I wrote last, fresh from a year of field research studying bat-borne viruses in Madagascar. The past few months have seen me lost in data analysis and scientific paper writing as part of my PhD studies at Princeton University. Now I’m back once more in Madagascar—with labmates in tow this time—investigating how climate change affects human movement and the spread of disease here.

“Diseases track human migrations all throughout history,” says Amy Winter, a soon-to-be-postdoc under Princeton professor Jessica Metcalf, the Principal Investigator on this project. A bit of reflection convinces me that she is —> Read More