Catalysing Communication on Barmer’s Changing Climate

Girls from a remote desert village in Barmer, Western India, are stepping out with microphones in their hands to run a community radio programme on local issues under the CDKN-START programme being implemented by SEEDS-India. They are finding that a large number of local hardships get worse due to climate variability, but are also realizing that local action is important key.
Photo: SEEDS, by Sarika Gulati

Microphones in hand, twelve teenage girls from two remote villages in Barmer, Western Rajasthan, stepped out into the community; many for the first time. With budding confidence, these girls, aged 12-18, will help develop content for short radio programmes. “It was the first time that we had travelled outside our village,” several girls commented. “It gave us a sense of confidence and we even interviewed the school principal!” Supported by local NGOs, the girls’ group hopes to transmit information both within the community and to the outside world.

The pilot community radio group is part of a SEEDS-led and START-CDKN supported research project in the area. It is being piloted in partnership with the NGO UNNATI, active in the area and able to provide sustainability to the initiative. Field insights highlighted the need for better awareness on climate change risks and possible solutions. Such radio programmes can provide the platform for issues, debates and messages; including on government schemes that many people are unable to access.

This need is acute and growing. One of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, arid Western Rajasthan also has some of the lowest human development indexes in India. Low adaptive capacities and a rigid caste system put many government schemes and essential services out of reach for some communities. Any improvements are sharply impacted every time a drought strikes. And, unfortunately, droughts are common in this region. In the recent past, extreme weather events such as flash floods and destructive windstorms have also wreaked havoc.

“Radio programmes, TV and newspapers cover issues of Jodhpur, New Delhi and the world, but not our issues. Community programmes are a chance to share our views and things that matter to us; to actually make people listen. Such radio will make our government accountable and help us share knowledge.”
– Local Dalit leader and father of one of the girls in the programme

Climate change studies for Rajasthan predict that temperatures will rise while mean precipitation will fall over time. On the other hand, extreme precipitation is likely to increase in both intensity and frequency. This will not only augment the risk of dangerous flash floods, but will degrade the soil and make ground water recharge difficult. A rise in famines, vector borne diseases and malnutrition could be a result. What will this mean for a community whose very survival is dependent on its land? As Ganpatji, an NGO worker and community mobiliser commented, “We are connected to the earth, water and land in a way that if anything changes; our lives are deeply affected.”

This effect is already visible. In one village, farmers talk about how two distinct rainy seasons were common, allowing for two cropping cycles. Now, the August rains are happening way before time and they are losing crops. Yet, they are unable to find a solution. The general emphasis on weather-based insurance schemes and promotion of perennial farming by the government (much more water and labour intensive) is only complicating matters further. Therefore, moving away from heavy dependence on water-intensive agriculture to more animal husbandry and related dairy production could be beneficial.

In another village, the community relocated to a higher plain after the devastating 2006 flash floods. The topography of the villages is a saucer-like shape, with surrounding dunes protecting them from the hot desert winds. During the unprecedented floods this turned out to be a curse, since water inundated the habitations and stayed for weeks due to the impervious gypsum deposits below the sand. Subsequently the reconstructed houses were built atop the dunes, and now not only are the families exposed to the hot winds and sandstorms, but the women walk longer in the searing heat to get water when their hilltop wells filled by weekly camel carts run dry. They don’t know when a flood will come again; but, in the meantime, they suffer a disaster every day. More in-depth studies are required to understand the potential risks from flash floods and to identify natural drainage pathways, preventing the creation of more such villages.

At the same time, the vast traditional knowledge on weather patterns and strategies such as common property can be seen slowly eroding. These are important strategies to revive. Especially where scientific data is lacking, observed patterns and changes could augment understanding. Common land can prove beneficial in terms of local vegetation during droughts, increase social capital and conserve water resources. Meeting these challenges will require concerted efforts at the local, district and state level, with a catalysing role played by local multi-stakeholder action.

The crucial need for better understanding and more robust adaptation and response plans is underscored by the current reality. As of April 2013, 12 districts in Rajasthan are reeling under a drought. It brings back the words of a farmer in Navatala. “This village was known as ‘kala dal’ (the dark space),” he had lamented. “It was dry and barren and we suffered a lot. Whenever a drought strikes again, we will fall back into that.”