Author: Pooja Chhabria Milan Jacob

From reviving traditional crops to climate-proofing infrastructure: How 5 Indian communities are adapting to climate change

Source(s): World Economic Forum
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Vegetable market, India
Hugh Mitton / flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

At the global level, India is at the forefront of driving action on climate change. Its pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2070 was one of the most important announcements at COP26.

In August last year, it was reported that the country had submitted its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) - climate action targets - to the UN climate change body.

With its G20 leadership until November this year, India is prioritising energy and climate change mitigation under its slogan 'one earth, one family, one future'.

The national and global climate change targets come as the country continues to witness the devastating effects of climate change. Extreme weather events were recorded across its landscape during 80% of the year in 2022.

And the impact on its growing population is starting to show.

This is where climate adaptation becomes critical. While mitigation involves cutting the pace of global emissions and slowing down warming, adaptation is essential to save lives and livelihoods in the short to medium term. Adaptation also helps in building long-term resilience to the impacts of climate change.

As adaptation strategies and finance needs are scaled up, communities at the grassroots are already finding ways to cope with increasing climate shocks.

The lived experiences of people across the most climate-vulnerable regions in India, as documented in the Faces of Climate Resilience project, reflect a determination to respond with action.

From Kerala to Rajasthan, individuals and communities are making efforts to ward off the worst effects of global warming and adapt through solutions. "They are embracing nature-based solutions using their traditional wisdom," says Nitin Bassi, the Programme Lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

"Further, they are able to mobilise collective action and collaborate with civil society, non-profit organisations, and local governments to build climate resilience."

Here, we bring you five such stories from people adapting to the climate reality.

How this Kerala district is re-building life and climate-proofing infrastructure

In 2018, the southern Indian state of Kerala witnessed its worst flooding in a century. Millions of people were affected, and monsoon rains hampered rescue operations.

In its aftermath, officials and experts said the floods in Kerala - with 44 rivers flowing through it - would not have been so severe if authorities had gradually released water from at least 30 dams.

But it was too late for residents like 49-year-old Jayachandran, who built a modest home for his family of four while selling fish for a living. This home, in the hilly region of Cheruthoni in Kerala's Idukki district, was among the houses washed away when the government opened the floodgates of the Idukki dam — one of the highest arch dams in Asia.

"I stood there, watching the efforts of my toil crumble to the ground. That was a harrowing experience," recalls Jayachandran. He and his family had already vacated their house after receiving a prior warning from the authorities. They spent the following days in a relief camp.

Jayachandran eventually built a two-bedroom house with some relief from the government's financial assistance.

Opening the gates to the dam also caused widespread damage to the critical infrastructure of Cheruthoni town. The gushing water submerged the bridge connecting two ends of the town, and the arterial road partially caved in.

Residents and the administration quickly realised the need to climate-proof the town's critical infrastructure. A proposal to replace the 60-year-old bridge that was submerged was approved, and the construction is in progress.

Other measures from the administration included the construction of a solid concrete wall along the approached road and installing tetrapods to reduce the impact of gushing water.

With this case in mind, the project points towards the need to develop a climate-proof infrastructure index for India. Such an index can help identify and map strategies to protect the country's existing and planned infrastructure against climate risks.

How a farmer in Maharashtra is adapting to drought

Rajendra Khapre is a farmer in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar — one of the most drought-prone districts in India. The 45-year-old has a small land holding and has been practising agriculture in a region with low fertility soil, which requires more fertilizers and water.

Now, he also has to cope with erratic rains and longer, harsher summers — the impacts of climate change. "In 2005, 2007, 2013 and 2016, Maharashtra faced massive droughts. Forget agriculture; we didn't even have water to drink. Farmers abandoned their fields and migrated to cities for work," Rajendra says.

According to CEEW analysis, the frequency and intensity of extreme droughts have increased 4X in the Ahmednagar district since 1970.

However, Rajendra and several other farmers are finding ways to adapt to the challenges. They have taken to watershed management and efficient cropping techniques with the help of grassroots-level organisations.

"We benefited greatly from watershed programs that helped prevent run-off from the hills. Gradually, the groundwater recharged, replenishing water in wells and lakes," Rajendra says.

Water availability also helped him shift to other crops, such as onion, soybean, pomegranate and papaya, which fetched more money in the market.

Rajendra has also started burying diffusers connected to existing drip lines in his pomegranate garden to adapt to droughts. The diffusers help optimise water usage during dry spells by moistening the soil around the roots. "We must change our ways and shift to natural farming methods to adapt to impending climatic changes," he says.

Climate-smart agriculture practices can promote effective water resource management and revitalise drought-prone ecosystems, especially in rain-fed areas.

How a Rajasthan village's floodwater harvesting mitigates drought stress

Shiv Prakash, a 31-year-old farmer in Rajasthan's Jodhpur district, can easily describe how the climate around him has shifted since childhood. He observes a clear rise in temperatures in his Govindpura village and notes that the rainfall is insufficient to raise crops.

"Now we get rain only two to four times a year. But when it rains hard, the gushing water carries away all the topsoil and fertilisers and destroys the crops," sums up Shiv, who lives with his wife and two children.

According to CEEW analysis, the frequency and intensity of extreme droughts has increased three-fold in the Jodhpur district since 1970.

But, the people of Govindpura believed they could overcome their challenges through collective effort. Shiv Prakash's father and a group of villagers formed a Village Development Committee (VDC) and collaborated with a grassroots organisation — Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (Gravis).

Together, they decided that the flow of water downstream from the hills must be checked and the water stored. They built several structures such as check dams, ponds and rainwater harvesting tanks.

The structures proved to be a game changer for farmers like Shiv Prakash. In addition to slowing the flow of water, they also aid in recharging groundwater substantially. "As a result, many farmers are now able to cultivate crops twice a year," a field coordinator of Gravis says.

Govindpura's example, where a challenge was turned into an opportunity successfully, shows that rainwater harvesting through traditional watershed infrastructure can prevent soil erosion and mitigate extreme droughts.

How flood-hit Odisha farmers are turning to traditional crops

Subrat Kumar, a middle-aged farmer from Gupti village in Odisha's Kendrapara district, had high hopes when he invested close to INR 0.15 million (about $1800) for paddy cultivation in 2021. He hoped that a good monsoon season would give his rain-fed paddy fields the irrigation required.

However, the following months did not go as planned for Kumar and scores of other farmers in the region — erratic monsoons followed the water-scarce summer months. Heavy rains left the farms inundated by the time of harvest in October, destroying crops.

A 2020 analysis published in Geophysical Research Letters highlighted such a dramatic dry-to-wet-weather swing. The researchers found that weather in some regions swings from drought to heavy rain under the weight of climate-induced changes - "like an undulating seesaw".

As for Odisha, there has been a three-fold rise in extreme flood events in the state in the last two decades, according to CEEW analysis.

"A combination of unsustainable landscape planning, lack of climate-resilient infrastructure and human-induced microclimate change triggered this rise in storm surges, incessant rainfall, and floods across the eastern and western coastal belts in India," says Shreya Wadhawan, Research Analyst at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

To overcome the crisis, farmers in the region are returning to certain traditional agricultural practices.

Adjacent to his hybrid paddy crops, a farmer is planting a paddy variety called 'Pottiya', which his forefathers cultivated. The traditional variety was not damaged in the flooding. "The traditional crops can withstand floods for up to two months," says 62-year-old Ajay Kumar Sahu, adding that the hybrid varieties get destroyed in 15 days.

The hybrid varieties initially promised higher monetary returns, but their rising input cost and unpredictable monsoons have made them risky. Realising the same, the farmers have decided to cultivate more traditional varieties. 

How Mumbai's Ambojwadi is responding to climate change

Barely five kilometres off the bustle of India's financial hub — the city of Mumbai — Kalpana wakes up to a deceptively green expanse. Unlike most other Mumbai residents, who open their windows to each other's balconies, she has the view all to herself — only because no one wants to share it.

The 31-year-old raises her three children by a vast wetland that floods every time it rains. Kalpana is among the 40,000 residents of Ambojwadi, an informal settlement in northwestern Mumbai that is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Living in a low-lying area, surrounded by wetlands, mangroves and the coastline, they are amongst the first to be affected by floods and cyclones. According to CEEW analysis, the Mumbai district has recorded a three-fold increase in extreme floods and a two-fold increase in extreme cyclones since 2010.

Kalpana and her neighbours want to be prepared as a disaster is imminent. They have been surveying the climate-vulnerable areas in their settlement and building a first-response team with the help of a Mumbai-based community organisation, YUVA.

The first-response team, formed with the participation of community leaders, women and youngsters, has been working closely with the civic government departments to deal with emergencies in the event of heavy rainfall or cyclone. They were even called in to support a rescue mission in the adjacent settlement, Malwani.

Amit, YUVA's field coordinator in Ambojwadi, says the settlement has become more vulnerable after a large stretch of protective mangrove forest was destroyed for infrastructure projects. To raise awareness about the importance of mangrove conservation, YUVA has been engaging youngsters in the settlement through murals, street plays and film shows.

"We're collectively trying to be better prepared as a community so that we can fight climate change in our own capacity," he says.

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