Link Pack #12: Three papers on barriers to adaptation

I recently came across three papers on adaptation barriers which are a back and forth between some authors in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research. Although focussed on adaptation barriers in the forestry sector, the points they make are quite interesting for climate change researchers in general.

Williamson and Nelson 2017: Talk of 3 types of barriers – harmoninsation barriers, enabling barriers, and implementation barriers in the context of the forestry sector. The paper’s acknowledgement of the intersecting, subjective, and dynamic nature of barriers is particularly welcome and something I’ve been trying to articulate in the context of adaptation in Indian agriculture

Harmonization barriers pertain to differences between adaptation and mitigation in pre-existing frames and beliefs. Enabling barriers are psychological and institutional in nature. Implementation barriers include capacity deficits (e.g., funding limits, science and knowledge deficits regarding benefits, trade-offs, and synergies between adaptation and mitigation) and governance issues. Barriers are interrelated, dynamic, and subjective.

Williamson and Nelson 2017:1568

Wellstead et al. 2018: Sharply critique Williamson and Nelson (2017) and call for examining the underlying causal mechanisms when studying barriers to open up a discussion on internal processes and dynamics that cause/perpetuate barriers instead of treating barriers in a system as a linear input-output model (i.e. if you remove barriers, desirable outcomes will be achieved). They particularly critique Williamson and Nelson’s ‘ functionalist approach’, the act of explaining early events by another event later in time. This style of reasoning, Wellstead et al.  argue masks the process of decision-making and does little to inform adaptation implementation. They say it assumes that ‘socio-political systems will automatically adjust to changes provided that barriers are removed’ (p.2). 

Williamson and Nelson 2018 reply back, saying the ‘barriers approach’ (listing out barriers to a desirable outcome) is important and a common practice in adaptation research (I agree) but acknowledge that using social science methodologies that focus on process and context are a useful addition.

Of course, the back and forth in the papers isn’t as friendly as I make them out to be but the arguments raised are interesting and important. They highlight a fundamental difference in how different disciplinary stances and starting points can frame the issue of adaptation barriers.   

Read previous link packs here.

Link Pack #11: Deep Work, Mindfulness and a Paper on Caste


The inimitable David Mosse recently wrote a paper in World Development called Caste and development: Contemporary perspectives on a structure of discrimination and advantage. It is an important paper that looks at caste in its various dimensions—economic divisions based on occupation, political through systems of dominance and rule, and ideological which is closely linked to ideas of purity and impurity. I particularly enjoyed Mosse’s review of the implications of caste on economic inequality, where he cites literature from rural India’s longitudinal village studies as well as assessment of public services delivery by development economists.

However, I missed a discussion on sub-caste differences that goes beyond Dalits vs. the rest (to be fair they are alluded to but not detailed). As recent work shows, understanding intra-caste inequalities is critical but does not receive as much attention as commonly stated hierarchies of ST/SC/OBC/General do.

Mosse also makes a very useful point about how there are shifts in what caste means and confers. Thus, as villagers integrate into the regional economy, caste is reconfigured as a “a resource or strategic network for access into this economy and workforce” (p.427, emphasis in original). However, when caste connotations move from “honor to opportunity” (ibid.), it is relegated to further invisibility. This is why the oft-repeated argument that the move from rural to urban areas allows loosening of caste-based discrimination might be erroneous since caste-based identity does not disappear, it merely morphs or in come cases, becomes invisible. The paper is an important read for anyone working on development issues in India.


Ezra Klein’s podcast is my latest favourite thing to listen to (I listen to podcasts while cooking and find the mix of stimulating my auditory and olfactory senses quite a nice change from being tied to a laptop!). Two great episodes I particularly liked:

  1. His conversation with Cal Newport (computer scientist at Georgetown University who also advocates for ‘deep work‘). They talk of distractedness and productivity (the two most overused words of the decade!), but more importantly, of ‘mental callisthenics’ or workouts for the brain. Towards the end, Newport suggests a few immediate tasks one can do for improving your mental health/attention span/proclivity for deep work: start putting on your calendar some appointments with yourself to do deep work; take social media applications off your phone; and schedule the time you do novel, distracting, stimulating things.
  2. His conversation with Robert Wright, on Why Buddhism is True is a thought-provoking conversation about the practical benefits of meditation, where mindfulness meets evolutionary biology, and how to navigate an era of fast news and information overload. A must-listen for over-stretched academics with a mountain of to-read papers and to-write-down ideas.

Read previous link packs here

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.

Link Pack #10: A desi dinosaur and a paper on development pedagogy


I have finally got around to reading Pranay Lal’s impressive book Indica: A deep natural history of the Indian subcontinent. Just halfway through the book but it is already something I wished I had to read in school – would\’ve made my geology, geography, biology classes so much more interesting. In case you aren’t convinced, he introduced me to India’s very own dinosaur the Kashmirosaurus! Now why weren’t we taught that growing up? [PS: Here’s a great review of the book by Valmik Thapar.]


Prof Petra Tschakert’s new paper Affective dimensions of teaching and doing development is a treat for anyone doing/teaching development. Drawing on reflections from two masters courses at the University of Western Australia, the authors (a professor, a teaching assistant, and the students themselves) reflect on how emotional engagements with development theory, and practice are critical to make sense of the dilemmas most (if not all) those involved in the development sector face. They enter this messy and often very uncomfortable space through four lenses:

“false binaries (male/female, rational/emotional; north/south, rich/poor, developed/developing and modern/traditional); engagement with the ‘Other’ (the quintessential development ‘subject’) and positionality (our own positionality as development scholars and future practitioners); embodied learning (creating spaces for bodily experiences) and postdevelopment (engaging all our senses)”.

Tschakert et al. (2018:2)

As a relatively privileged person doing research in often very vulnerable communities, the tussles the students recount were very familiar to me. In capturing and making sense of some of these tussles, I think this is an important paper for all of us who try to ‘do’ and teach development.


Finally got to Caliphate, a 10-episode podcast by Rukmini Callimachi, who takes the listeners on her quest to understand the ISIS, its compulsions and outcomes. I heard savoured it over ten days and I can’t recommend it enough. Please listen to it now!

In a bid to blog more regularly, I am reinstating my ‘link packs‘ series where I discuss interesting things I’ve read/heard/seen in the week. Hope you enjoy them and as much as I did!

What are the costs of studying over-researched places?

Over at Twitter, Cat Button recently advertised a Call for Papers on “Over-researched Places”. Fascinating right? Wondering about research spaces that are revisited and researched repeatedly, she calls for reflexive interrogation of the issue of “researcher saturation and its consequences”.

Over-researched places in urban India

The idea immediately appealed to me. In development research across urban India, metropolitan regions — the big five of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Calcutta have been, in my opinion, over-researched. You have now oft-repeated narratives of Bangalore’s Silicon Valley story vs. it’s growing inequality; Mumbai’s flood management and inherent ‘resilience’; Delhi bastis and regular evictions. But we hear less of Tier II and Tier III cities which are also spaces of dynamism and aspirational change; spaces where ‘step-migrants’ often come to before moving to big cities; and sites where environmental problems have still not become the behemoths they have in our metropolitan cities.

Great CfP on #over-researched places! Reminds me of the Indian urban studies landscape and how our metropolitan cities are researched to death. What about the likes of Bidar, Begusarai, Banswara, Bomdila?

— Chandni Singh (@_chandnisingh) January 4, 2018

In itself, repeated research in a place is not a negative methodological practice; in fact, development researchers often bemoan the lack of longitudinal studies and the diminishing practice of long-term village studies. However, conducting research in the same places, even if by different researchers, with different questions, and operating in different sectors, potentially drives what you look for and what you find. Some examples?

  • Over-researched as a process of obscuring: In climate change adaptation research in India’s cities, the over-researched are pretty conspicuous. The usual suspects are Surat, Gorakhpur, and Indore, regularly written about and quoted as ‘success stories’ mostly because of a long-term ACCRN project that funded research-based adaptation implementation in the cities. My concern is that such over-researched places tend to obscure other places which perhaps need more attention and, in some cases, can provide additional insights to the issue of implementing sustainable adaptation. Moreover, even if different PD students visit these sights, previous conceptual frames and methodological tools tend to colour their enquiries (similar to what Cat calls ‘Ghosts of Researchers Past’). 
  • Lacunae within the over-researched: As my colleague Amogh pointed out on Twitter, over-researched ‘places’ often lead to \’over-researched sectors’. For example, Bangalore’s water and transportation issues have received a tremendous amount of research attention, with much lower commentary on energy, food, or employment. Even within sectors such as water, he rightly points out that there are still big data gaps (such as on groundwater). In Delhi, (the lack of) equitable water provisioning and housing tend to overshadow issues around informal livelihoods, shrinking commons, etc. While there is a reason that the over-researched sectors are important (they have, over time, been identified as critical issues in the city), they might push researchers to continue to study what has been studied. The data is available, there is a discourse to embed one’s arguments into or against. Such peripheralisation of sectors and certain groups within the spaces that are over-researched means than not only change and dynamism but also creativity and novelty may get sidelined.  
  • Forgotten places or the un-researched: Finally, there are some places that remain completely un-researched. Here, I feel fit the smaller cities in India. Especially in climate change and environmental research, these spaces are seldom researched and if so, only as part of large-scale studies. The danger of the un-researched is that we end up telling half-stories and overlook critical spaces of challenges and opportunity.  

But what of under-researched places?

I went the other way in my PhD and researched a completely under-researched site in South Rajasthan. My choice was driven by the fact that water scarcity has been over-studied in Rajasthan\’s arid northern districts with lesser emphasis on the relatively wetter but nevertheless water-scarce southern districts. Even within South Rajasthan, some districts such as Udaipur, are over-researched and over-implemented in — NGO friends joked that each village in Udaipur has three NGOs operational — one each for education, environmental, and health issues.

One of the few unexpected things I found in under-researched places. Afeem (opium) plantations in Pratapgarh.

I enjoyed exploring new things in Pratapgarh, the under-researched place, which was the site of my PhD research. However, I did face issues specific to sites not studied before. Gaps in longitudinal data were a major challenge. There are no papers and very little grey literature on Pratapgarh’s history of socio-political marginalisation, its peculiar geography of basalt under-rock, its development trajectory, it’s agricultural transformation and pertinent for me, its response to drought and water scarcity. So triangulating as I went along, I followed my supervisor’s advice closely, “be like a bird, collect everything you can to make your nest”.

Despite liaising with a fantastic NGO that eased my entry into the research locations, the lack of previous research in the area meant gaining entry was much tougher. I did not have the social capital that researchers of over-researched places can draw upon, I built my networks and garnered local interest in my work as I went along. I did not have longer-term datasets that they can compare their findings to. I did not have a cohort of scholars already talking about and publishing research from the location.

And so, both over- and under-researched areas have their pitfalls and bonuses. What is crucial is to keep in mind that where one does one’s research critically shapes what we study, how we study it and perhaps, what we find. Any thoughts on this? Why not submit a paper to Cat Button’s RGS session?

Adaptation pathways: two recent papers and implications for maladaptation

In the climate change adaptation literature, pathways thinking seems to be cropping up everywhere. A quick search I did for papers published 2014 onwards threw up 25 distinct case studies engaging with adaptation pathways-speak, with examples ranging from \’priming\’ multiple stakeholders to find transformational solutions to climatic risks in Indonesia (Butler et al., 2016), to ethnographic research examining pathways of past adaptation in Eastern Europe (Campeanu et al., 2014).

This was not the case in the summer of 2013, when I took a break from writing up my PhD thesis to attend the STEPS Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability in Brighton. Bringing together a stimulating mix of PhD students in varying stages of their research, the summer school first introduced me to pathways thinking. Or the STEPS Pathways Approach.

The Rivers of Life exercise at the STEPS Summer School where we charted our personal pathways (complete with obstacles, leaps forward, histories, and aspirations).

That exposure shaped a key part of my thesis and I went on to write about conceptualising household responses to climate variability and change as intersecting and internally messy pathways. More recently, I have been arguing for examining how past trajectories of development open up or close down the adaptation options space available to people, hinging the pathways approach to a justice lens of winner and losers and tradeoffs.

Households facing multiple risks can undertake different response pathways. From Singh et al. (2016):

But what are adaptation pathways and do they offer anything radical? Two key papers I read recently, offer some insights. 

In his sweeping literature review of four adaptation pathways approaches, Eisenhauer (2016) argues for more robust engagement with the political aspects of adaptation. He argues that meeting the ‘adaptive challenge’ of climate change (described by Karen O\’Brien, 2012 as ‘addressing the beliefs and world views that contribute to how individuals and groups approach the problem of change’) requires rethinking politics within the context of adaptation. He finds that none of the four approaches critically engage with ‘antagonistic political relations’ — all of them seem to assume that problems can be solved through rational consensus processes, which is often not the case in complex problems riddles with issues of uncertainty. Second, he emphasises that none of the approaches forefront challenges posed by intersectionality and relational political ecologies.

The second, empirical paper I read was Fazey et al. (2015) who examine \”past adaptation to provide new insights about how future-oriented adaptation path-ways might be approached.” They helpfully differentiate between adaptation pathways approaches which map out possible future adaptation option trajectories vs. pathways lenses, defined as “an approach to frame understanding of past change and response dynamics.” Importantly, a pathways lens interrogates:

“how and why change and responses may have occurred, the different ways different groups have perceived, responded to or navigated change, contextual issues (e.g. politics, social norms, values) that affect change dynamics and the role of power in shaping change and human agency.”

Fazey et al. (2015:28)

This work is close to a paper I presented last year on using historical trajectories of development to chart adaptation opportunity in fast growing and increasingly unequal countries such as India. Fazey et al. examine adaptive action in four cases: the Solomon Islands, Canada, Romania, and Australia, to suggest past actions have implications for how and at what pace communities transition, what adaptation options are undertaken in the present and available in the future, and the dynamic rubric of social differentiation and power within communities. They go onto suggest that “understanding past change provides inspiration for new and transformative futures”.

Contrary to this hopeful tone, colleagues and I have recently argued that “understanding the past provides warnings to not make the same mistakes and jeopardise new and transformative futures”. While more ominous in its tone, our way of interrogating historical pathways to diagnose current adaptation inaction and future adaptation options might be the wake up called needed in today’s India.

There is a reason why Indian farming is the way it is. Looking back and tracing its development pathways helps us understand the narrow ‘adaptation space’ we have today. For more read our paper “Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures”. [Picture taken in Gulbarga, Karnataka]

I leave you with a final, fascinating, if somewhat sombre, quote:

“One of the negative effects of enhanced adaptive capacity or flexibility may therefore be that it reinforces change, which in turn requires more adaptive responses or flexibility, partly explaining acceleration of global change. More transformative forms of adaptation therefore require some ways of stepping off the accelerating treadmill.”

Fazey et al. (2015:15)

Our paper “Tracing back to move ahead: Development pathways that define adaptation futures” out in Climate and Development. Click here for a PDF. Comments/feedback most welcome!

Thoughts on two new papers from vulnerability and adaptation research

I read two very interesting papers from adaptation and vulnerability research last week.

In Operationalizing longitudinal approaches to climate change vulnerability assessment, Fawcett et al. (2017) make a case for longitudinal methodological approaches when studying vulnerability and adaptation. The lack of attention paid to temporality has been a long-held peeve of mine (it\’s gotten so bad that in team meetings, colleagues crack jokes about it). Fawcett et al. use three illustrative cases from Arctic communities to highlight how longitudinal approaches, two in particular — cohort studies (following a group of individuals over time) and trend studies (repeated data collected at a community level to reveal patterns of change) — can strengthen the methodological toolbox of vulnerability research.

I particularly liked how they tease out the benefits of using a longitudinal approach. It helps

  1. build a more nuanced understanding of adaptation processes and \’causal chains\’ of vulnerability (something Jesse Ribot has written a lot about, see his work from 1995, 2010, and 2014), 
  2. construct a more robust portrayal of what has worked and hasn\’t, and why, which is crucial for anyone interesting in strengthening, investing in, and implementing adaptation, and 
  3. diagnose maladaptive behaviour by looking into past pathways. This last approach is similar to what colleagues and I have taken in a recent project where we use cases from rural and urban India to argue that tracing historical trajectories of development and adaptation actions can help understand how development choices can narrow adaptation option spaces, often leading to potential maladaptation.

Coming back to Fawcett et al. (2017), I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and wholly support their key argument of expanding vulnerability research to involve more longitudinal approaches that begin to capture temporality. While the authors discuss the challenges in doing such research (notably, potential attrition of respondents from original cohorts, the need for sustained funding), I have two questions probing the practice of longitudinal vulnerability assessment approaches:

  1. The political economy of vulnerability assessments: Currently, many NGOs, donors, and governments conduct VAs. How do the authors imagine such actors to undertake longitudinal studies given the budgets, project cycle-time frames, and capacity constraints they work under? This is especially true in government departments in India (we did a review of 120 VAs in India found 35% use static, indicator-based approaches). Moreover, in many cases, governments undertake VAs under tight deadlines (for e.g. assessments after a disaster event to inform humanitarian action). The underlying question is how can we build processes and demand for longitudinal vulnerability assessment approaches that feed into shorter-term cycles but also contribute to the larger narratives of vulnerability? 
  2. The place of researchers: Researchers are a possible \’actor group\’ that don\’t face all the challenges noted above, or at least not to a similar extent. However, researchers are increasingly being squeezed into shorter project cycles, insecure employment arrangements, tighter funding structures, and greater calls for impact — all of which, may not necessarily be conducive to longitudinal research  design which needs 1) sustained financial backing, 2) strong, clear and continual leadership, 3) an underlying recognition of the importance of such work, 4) acceptance of delayed gratification.

In Adaptive capacity: exploring the research frontier, Mortreux and Barnett (2017) discuss the emphasis that adaptation research has on quantified assessments of adaptive capacity (predominantly through Sustainable Livelihoods Framework-based (SLF) approaches) without an equal emphasis on how and to what extent adaptive capacity translates in adaptation outcomes. They highlight valuable gaps in adaptation research, most notably, the lack of focus on the process of adaptive capacity (a potential to adapt) being translated into an adaptation outcome (with concrete implications for peoples\’ vulnerability). The paper reviews emerging literature on risk perception and adaptation decision-making, cognitive barriers to adaptive behaviour, and place attachment, to discuss how these gaps can be addressed.

To add to their review of literature from disaster risk management and behavioural sciences, I wanted to highlight a few empirical studies exploring the drivers of adaptation behaviour and adaptation outcomes:

  1. Burnham and Ma (2017) examine farmer adaptation decisions in Loess Plateau, China and find that self efficacy, i.e. one\’s perception of one\’s own efficacy to adapt, shapes adaptation behaviour and outcomes significantly. They crucially highlight that in addition to household assets and entitlements, state-society dependencies may reduce farmer perceived self-efficacy.  
  2. Drawing on data examining household and intra-household risk perceptions and decisions in rainfed farming families in north-west India, I have argued that different households perceive risk differently and this shapes the adaptation pathways they take. Moreover, I found that adaptation outcomes (measured through environmental, social and economic lenses) change over time based on changing household assets but also changing social structures, policy regimes, and cultural beliefs.
  3. In a completely different context, Evans et al. (2016) examine social limits to adaptation int he Great Barrier Reef region.They argue that social limits affect adaptation outcomes by dissuading people to take up adaptive action in the first place! Also interactions between psycho-social (or what I call socio-cognitive) and structural factors can adaptation ineffective. 

Conceptually, it\’s exciting times for adaptation research. Practically, I feel that while there is a growing body of work around understanding the need for longitudinal vulnerability assessments and factoring in socio-cognitive barriers to adaptation, it hasn\’t begun to filter into mainstream adaptation implementation and negligibly in policy circles (especially in India, the context I am most familiar with). 

Urban Livelihoods: Learning by Doing

If I were to choose one word to define my research, it would not be climate change or adaptation, it would actually be livelihoods. Livelihoods. How people earn a living; a process, a strategy that goes much beyond a \’job\’ or income source\’, a negotiation that people and families make to live, and meet their physical needs and, if you\’re lucky, aspirations as well.

\”Livelihoods are understood not only in terms of income earning but a much wider range of activities, such as gaining and retaining access to resources and opportunities, dealing with risk, negotiating social relationships within the household and managing social networks and institutions within communities and the city.\” Beall and Kanji (1999:1) 

Until a few years ago, I was working exclusively on rural livelihoods. How households deal with climatic risks (among other things) and what livelihood pathways they take. The rural development literature has had a relatively long engagement with the idea of livelihoods: from here comes the now-common lexicon of sustainable livelihoods and five livelihood capitals (Scoones, 1998; 2009), livelihood diversification and risk spreading (Ellis, 1998), and multiple discussions on methods to study livelihoods (Murray, 2001; McLean, 2015).

\”A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base.\” Carney (1998:4).

More recently, when I began examining livelihoods spanning the rural-peri-urban-urban continuum, the literature has seemed less developed. Urban livelihoods differ from rural livelihoods in their nature, range of opportunities and earning possibilities, as well as entry criteria. Constructs common in rural research such as \’community\’, \’common pool resources\’, \’village leaders and elites\’, take on different meanings and forms in the urban. The slum leader may double up as labour contractor and (illegal) water provider. Lines of gender, caste and class remain but they take on different forms and confer different agency in the urban. Even defining a household becomes tricky (Beall and Kanji, 1999). Interrogating all of this from a livelihoods approach requires a lexicon that moves away from agriculture and allied sectors towards spaces such as factory floors and street vending, domestic work and call centres. That moves away from discussions around landholding sizes and livelihood portfolios towards encounters of choices and aspirations with globalisation and sharp class differences.  

And so, over the past year, I have been documenting urban livelihoods across India using the the hashtag #UrbanLivelihoods. So far I\’ve covered Delhi, Lucknow, Bangalore, and Mathura to create a photo repository of the diverse activities people undertake in our messy, hard-to-define, and ever-changing urban spaces. It is a tentative foray into the range of livelihoods one encounters in the urban. And so I have captured the fodder sellers of Vrindavan who are part of a tourism industry that feeds on the \’holy cow\’. The agarbatti rollers in Bangalore\’s pete area. The singhara seller in Lucknow, and the Nepali house maid in Delhi.

See all of them here.

\”We can do it sitting at home\”. Threading strings of mogra (jasmine). #UrbanLivelihoods in #Bangalore

— Chandni Singh (@_chandnisingh) August 18, 2016

Envisioning with empathy: Reflections on the Transformative Scenario Planning Methodology

Last month, my team organised and participated in a training workshop on a methodology called Transformative Scenario Planning (TSP). Aimed at envisioning and co-creating futures in situations that are seemingly stuck, cannot be resolved by one/few actors, and are complex and conflict-ridden, the TSP has been used across the globe from post-apartheid South Africa to democratic futures across Latin America. In India, we are exploring whether we can use this methodology to construct transformative scenarios for Bangalore\’s water future. 
Building Lego models to go with our scenarios. Photo by Tanvi Deshpande

 About: Transformative scenarios aren’t about predicting the future, they’re about creating it. While most scenario planning methodologies focus on adaptation, transformative scenarios seek to not only understand or adapt to the future but also to shape it. The structured yet creative process helps diverse actors to see the different futures that are possible and discover what they can and must do. Constructing transformative scenarios may lead to working together over time in social labs.

How They Work: Transformative scenarios offer a way for diverse stakeholders together to unblock situations that are polarized or stuck. The facilitated process combines imagination and rigour. It is useful when a diverse set of people face a complex challenge that is vital to them but that they have not been willing or able to work on together, perhaps because they disagree on the very nature of the problem. Transformative scenarios enable them to construct shared understandings, stronger relationships, and clearer intentions, thereby creating the potential for action that will shape a better future. From the Reos Partners Website

 Rachenahalli Lake in Bangalore. Read more at the TNOC blog. Photo by Sumetee P Gajjar

Bangalore\’s water situation has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Bangalore\’s lakes are polluted and frothing. The city has a thriving water mafia which has exploited groundwater within and beyond city boundaries. Real estate developers routinely build upon and along lake beds, disrupting local hydrology. Beyond the water issues, Bangalore is facing serious challenges: its population has doubled over the past decade; services from transportation to electricity supply, are severely stressed; and its under-staffed government bodies face recurring issues of fragmentation and redundancy (many departments with overlapping functions, poor policy convergence). Inequality in the city mirrors Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze\’s apt comment on India of \”islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa\” (An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, p.9). 

In such a situation of complex, almost-overwhelming issues that promise to only become more acute in the future, Bangalore\’s Water Future is a candidate ripe for the TSP. For me, the workshop, and the journey it took us on, was an invigorating experience. 

“…change or action happens when the pain is felt throughout the system.” Colleen, Reos Partners, Day 1 

Colleen from Reos Partners taking us through the driving forces exercise. Photo by Tanvi Deshpande

Takeaways from the process
  • The TSP made us recognise and almost personalise the \’pain in the system\’ and use it to understand that if solutions are to work, they must be co-created and co-envisioned
  • But realising that solutions must be co-created isn\’t enough. Several exercises like paired walks and the Cynics and Believers exercise, helped break down preconceived assumptions and embedded hostilities we might have towards certain stakeholders (\”the government doesn\’t do anything\”; \”environmental activists would prefer that we stop all development\”). Speaking to one another in an open manner, in the safe space the TSP process created, helped build trust and allow for honest conversations. 
  • Since the TSP follows a systems thinking approach based on principles of interdependence and holism, it resonated with me (and my work on livelihoods across rural-urban continua).
  • I was happy to that the TSP strongly argues that having conversations and undertaking personal journeys towards transformative change are not \’fluff\’. It follows a rigorous process of creating stories of the future: the stories/scenarios are considered \’valid\’ only if they are plausible, challenging, relevant, and clear.
  • Actively differentiates between adaptation and transformation.
  • The interactive nature of the workshop (we had Lego and hexagonal post-its!) really challenged some participants (government officials, I\’m looking at you!) but everyone came aboard pretty soon which was heartening. 
  • Challenged linear ways of problem solving and made us get our hands and minds dirty in the inherent messiness of complex problems and recognising that if change is unpredictable, making it happen needs something more than business as usual.

              looking towards the future along with others is, in itself, a big step.” Participant, Day 2

              Pictures from the TSP workshop. Photos by Tanvi Deshpande.

              Further reading

              1. Video: Webinar by Adam Kahane on the TSP [Link]
              2. Audio/visual: Adaptation pathways, an alternative scenario planning exercise [Link]
              3. Reading: Systems thinking and climate change adaptation [Link]

              What\’s the difference between adaptation and development?

              How do we differentiate between adaptation and development? Are development projects being re-branded to show that they are meeting climate change goals in a bid to attract funds? Or is adaptation just the latest fad; nothing more than development with a climate change hat on?

              Drip irrigation is ubiquitous in water-scarce Kolar. Photo by Chandni Singh
              A working paper I recently wrote tries to unravel this issue and demonstrates that demarcating what is adaptation and what development is not all that simple. From a review of 69 projects in three semi-arid states of India, we find that initiatives that takes into account existing vulnerabilities (due to social differences, and different capacities and capabilities) and prepare for climatic risks can be termed as adaptive. Projects that are not flexible or forward-thinking and are ignorant of current and potential climatic risks, are neither adaptive nor \’good\’ development. From the abstract:

              We find that while there is a significant reorientation of development action in India to mainstream adaptation goals, there remain issues around who takes on which role (and has the competency to do so) as well as how critical aspects of adaptation (flexibility, forward-thinking, and learning) are being considered in adaptation-development projects currently.