New paper: Risks and responses in India’s drylands

The latest World Bank Report on climate change in South Asia proclaims “South Asia is highly vulnerable to climate change. And it’s getting worse”. There is an ever-increasing body of research showing that India is facing and will continue to face rising temperatures, more erratic rainfall, and more severe drought-like conditions. The implications of these changes will be and are already being felt in India’s drylands; recent research is showing that semi-arid regions have expanded by 10% expansion in recent decades. Given that India’s most vulnerable populations inhabit its semi-arid lands; such environmental changes have grave implications on local livelihoods.  

A view from the bottom up shows that communities in drylands across India are no strangers to climatic risks and have honed ways to cope with and plan for them through innovating and trial and error. There is a rich repository of local action such as water harvesting in Rajasthan, saving seeds of drought-tolerant varieties, and tank irrigation across South India. However, these practices are facing unprecedented hurdles – dry spells are becoming longer and more erratic, pasturelands are shrinking, winter temperatures are warmer affecting crop productivity, and soil fertility is rapidly deteriorating. Numerous climate change studies assess response strategies people undertake to deal with these risks. However, there is less focus on how these risks and responses change over time. We studied 825 households in two districts of Karnataka, South India, to understand how risks and responses in farming households are changing and the role of external actors – governments, NGOs – in helping people cope with and adapt to this changing risk landscape. 

Drylands across India are seeing rapid land degradation. In this dried lake bed in Kolar, alien invasive species such as Lantana camara (pink, flowering plant in the foreground) and Eucalytpus dark green trees in the background) signal an ecosystem that is changing, often at the cost of fodder availability and soil quality. Livestock owners across Kolar, often called ‘the land of milk and silk’, are reporting having to sell livestock or purchase fodder at almost prohibitive costs. Picture: Chandni Singh, Malur Block, Kolar.

What risks are rural households facing?

Kolar and Gulbarga are experiencing more erratic rainfall patterns, groundwater depletion, and natural resource degradation. There is substantial variability in rainfall amount in the past decades with a significant declining trend in rainfall amount in Kolar district.

Overall, untimely rainfall and water scarcity were significant risks to agriculture, corroborating meteorological trends of more erratic rainfall. Market-related issues such as inadequate transportation, long distance from markets, and price fluctuations were prominently raised by men; women reported issues related to sowing such as poor soil quality and lack of seeds. Other livelihoods such as running petty shops were constrained by lack of credit, existing debt, and gendered normative barriers (women spoke of being harassed and having to take male relatives when purchasing supplies for their shops).

Youngsters spoke of issues not commonly discussed in climate change research. For example, a 22-year-old boy reported seeing ‘no alternative’ to wage labour; another 19-year-old son of a smallholder said he was disinterested in farming because of its low returns. While these can constitute cognitive barriers in undertaking certain strategies, they also point to an aspirational change underway in rural areas which is stemming from growing despair with agrarian livelihoods, increasing education among rural youth, and more exposure to urban life. While these risks are often intangible, they can manifest as important factors shaping peoples’ responses.

We asked 825 households in Kolar and Gulbarga to rank risks they face in farming. Top risks were mainly climatic as the graph shows. Other risks were deteriorating soil quality, lack of quality seeds at the right time, and pest attacks. Source: Singh et al. 2018 

People have a portfolio of risk management strategies

People cope or adapt either themselves (autonomously) or through external support (planned adaptation interventions). We found a range of strategies from short-term coping strategies (e.g. reducing food intake during lean months or taking up non-farm activities to earn extra money) to longer-term adaptive strategies such as investing in water-saving infrastructure such as drip irrigation. Critically, 36% of the households reported undertaking no response. These were often the most vulnerable; too poor to invest in strategies for water management, lacking the social networks to access adaptation opportunities, or not having the know how about what strategy to employ.

Left: Drip irrigation is an increasingly common water saving strategy across Kolar district in South Karnataka. Bolstered by a 100% state subsidy, drip irrigation has been rapidly employed across Karnataka and has helped manage a scarce resource. However, mulberry, a common crop which feeds the silviculture sector in Kolar is facing new risks. Cheap Chinese silk has flooded the international market, crowding out Kolar silk. Understanding this dynamic risk landscape farmers face is critical to support local livelihoods.

Right: Migration to urban areas is another common strategy to manage risks. However, while drought-prone districts such as Gulbarga have had a history of migration, the nature and quantum of migration is changing. Increasingly, women are also moving and the jobs they enter are increasingly non-agrarian in nature. In Bangalore, we visited several migrant families living in informal settlements such as the one above, where men and women take up a range of informal livelihoods to make ends meet. 

Pictures: Chandni Singh, Bangarpet Block, Kolar (left); informal settlement in Bangalore (right)

So what? Insights for sustainable adaptation

To understand the implications of these responses strategies, we used a sustainability lens to assess local response strategies based on whether they had ecological impacts (did they inadvertently use more water or reduce species diversity?), economic impacts (did they improve household income?), and social implications (did they build or undermine social networks, did they exacerbate inter-household inequities?).

When we applied a sustainability lens to local response strategies, we found very few strategies actually met economic, ecological and social goals. This highlighted how each adaptation or coping strategy comes with trade-offs and when investing in local adaptation, acknowledging and planning for these trade-offs is critical.

Overall, people in semi-arid regions are managing risk in innovative ways. They are drawing on their own resources and government schemes to deal with risk. However, the context within which they are operating is changing rapidly, often rendering adaptive strategies ineffective or, in some examples, potentially maladaptive. Through the use of a sustainability lens for assessing adaptation outcomes, we highlight how acknowledging the ever-changing nature of risks and responses and a focus on trade-offs is critical towards sustainable adaptation.

For more insights, do read the paper here. If you can’t access it, email me at csingh[@]iihs[dot]ac[dot]in.

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

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