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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.
2 thoughts on “New paper: Risks and responses in India’s drylands”
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