Insights from the Field

Detailed field research on what households and communities actually do to 'adapt' or respond to groundwater problems was recently undertaken as part of a larger programme on adaptation by a consortium of organizations across India and Nepal (Moench and Dixit, 2004). Aspects of this research in Gujarat, India, are discussed by Mudrakartha (Chapter 12, this volume) from the Vikram Sarabhai Centre for Development Interaction (VIKSAT), one of the partner organizations (Mudrakartha, 2005). As a result, only the broad insights generated by the project are discussed here.

The project focused on areas in which long-term groundwater overdraft conditions were compounded by drought. In these areas, people responded to both the creeping process of increasing water scarcity and the immediate impact of drought primarily by:

1. Attempting to diversify income sources away from water-dependent, agricultural forms of livelihood;

2. Attempting to increase access to water, particularly secure sources of water for domestic and livestock use, through water-harvesting activities, by drilling ever-deeper wells and by purchasing water through informal markets supplied by water tankers (commonly known as 'tanker markets');

3. When all else failed, by coping through reduced consumption.

Those who successfully 'adapted' - i.e. those who were able to maintain living standards and avoid the coping strategies that involved reductions in consumption and other indicators of living standards - were the ones who succeeded in diversifying their livelihood and obtaining secure sources of domestic water supply. The story is not, however, simply one of economic diversification and domestic water security. To be effective, these core strategies depended upon sets of linkages with higher-level economic, information and social systems. In addition, while some of the linkages occurred due to the immediate pressure of drought, many of them evolved over much longer periods of time. To be more specific, in most areas, successful diversification into non-farm activities was enabled by a combination of factors including:

1. Proactive migration and commuting: Migration and commuting were core strategies that enabled families and communities to obtain access to outside labour markets and sources of non-farm income. In some cases, this occurred over a generational basis. Families invested in efforts to find non-agricultural work for at least one key member in an urban area. In other cases, the strategy involved long-term investments in education. When drought hit, the income generated by family members working in urban areas served as a critical buffer for livelihood or as the source of capital for recovery or investment for those still living in rural areas. In yet other cases, migration involved short-term travel to work in regional labour markets - or even commuting to access specific local work opportunities. The core points here, however, are that (i) mobility was a core factor enabling diversification and (ii) in many cases it was a proactive strategy that occurred over long periods of time and not a short-term reactive response to immediate drought impacts.

2. Access to transport and markets: The ability to diversify depended heavily on the presence of transport systems and access to regional markets. In the Gujarat drought case, many farmers increased dairy production by using fodder grown in distant locations and transported it into their area. Similarly, access to secure domestic water supplies - which are in effect the single most essential requirement for people to remain in any given region - was often enabled by access to regional tanker markets for water. This was also the case for many other non-farm activities such as woodworking, diamond polishing and developing other small businesses. Transport and market access were, as a result, core prerequisites, enabling diversification both within the agricultural economy and between agriculture and non-farm activities.

3. Access to social networks: Familiarity with regional labour markets and access to key individuals already working within them were commonly mentioned as important factors enabling diversification. This was also the case for other resources such as credit.

4. Access to credit and financial institutions: Without credit, the investments required for diversification - including the costs associated with migration to distant labour markets - are often impossible to make. Similarly, without financial institutions (whether formal or informal), the ability to send remittances earned through migration and commuting for investment in local livelihood systems is greatly limited.

5. Access to education: Key skills, such as basic literacy and any higher levels of education, played an important role in the ability to diversify. In many cases, the least educated only had access to jobs as wage labourers in agriculture or the construction industry, whereas those with higher levels of education had access to a more diversified portfolio of job opportunities.

6. Presence of local institutions: Self-help groups and other community organizations along with access to higher-level non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government organizations and private businesses played a critical role. To take another example from the Gujarat drought case, cooperatives played a major role in organizing fodder transport, enabling bulk purchase and providing credit. This was a critical input that enabled farmers to shift out of irrigated agriculture and diversify into dairy production as groundwater levels declined and the drought increased.

In most of the areas studied, the ability to adapt was not uniform across the communities. As with many other studies in the development literature, existing patterns of vulnerability created by gender, income and social position played a critical role. Women, for example, had far less access to many of the opportunities for income diversification than men, and this was often the case for other economic or socially constrained groups also. The poor were not, however, always the most vulnerable or the least adaptable. In many areas marginal farmers had much greater familiarity than larger farmers with regional labour markets as well as the established social networks required to access them. As a result, when the wells of the larger farmers failed, they lacked the experience and contacts necessary to diversify. In some cases, these larger farmers invested virtually all their capital and acquired substantial debt in unsuccessful attempts to obtain access to groundwater by deepening their wells. As a result, they suffered a far greater decline in income than smaller farmers who already had contacts and familiarity with regional labour markets. When the wells were successful, however, the larger farmers were able to maintain existing livelihood systems and experienced little, if any, decline in living standards. They, however, remained vulnerable to the next drought and the potential failure of the new wells in which most of their wealth was now invested. Instead of reducing vulnerability, the ability to maintain access to groundwater may have, in fact, reduced the incentive to adapt, and therefore increased vulnerability over the longer term.

Overall, the ability to adapt to the combination of drought and long-term groundwater overdraft was heavily influenced by a combination of location-specific factors and wider regional conditions. Where access to groundwater remained secure, the incentive to adapt to any specific drought event was low, but farmers were often aware of longer-term threats to the resource base and were taking proactive measures (e.g. investing in education and economic diversification) that would increase the ability of their family to adapt if secure water supplies were lost. Other local courses of action, such as investments in water harvesting, were a way of increasing local water security. Critical points of transition occurred when wells failed and the ability to continue intensive irrigated agriculture failed with them. At this point, the impact on livelihood depended on the degree to which diversification out of vulnerable activities had already occurred and the immediate ability of livelihood units to shift on relatively short notice. This ability depended, in turn, on social position and the ability of information, goods, services and people to flow into , and out of, affected areas.

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