Living with co-located hazards: reimagining preparedness under climate extremes

Published on 22 November 2021

Shilpi Srivastava

Research Fellow

Krishna AchutaRao

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

Tom Ainsworth

University of Brighton

Mihir Bhatt

All India Disaster Mitigation Institute

Climate extremes are increasingly becoming part of the ‘new normal’ given the pace of global warming. The latest IPCC findings highlight that the incidence of extreme weather events is likely to increase significantly. In this context, we need to reimagine climate preparedness from the ground up so that those on the frontline of climate change have a voice in planning and decision-making processes. Bringing different knowledges together is the first crucial step, argues the ANTICIPATE team.

The rapid rise of extreme weather events is fast becoming a cause of concern for scientists, local communities and public agencies, especially when historically new patterns emerge with no prior record of occurrence. For instance, in 2020, the region of Kutch in north-western India and a historically drought-prone area recorded  32 per cent higher rainfall than the season’s average and various parts of the district were flooded. These events coincided with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic causing widespread damage to livelihoods.

While local communities in arid rural areas in India are used to adapting to the uncertainties around drought, the recent episodes of floods have stretched the planning and response capacities of both individuals and public agencies. This gives rise to radical uncertainty in the form of these concurrent compound events, which in our project we conceptualise as co-located hazards*.

When such unexpected events occur, both forecasting and preparation can be fraught with challenges. Improved forecasting capabilities can help in mitigating climate induced hazards, especially by reducing the damage to life as a short-term measure but we need a new paradigm of planning and decision-making under radical uncertainties to build response and preparedness from the ground-up. Droughts and floods in different parts of Africa, Asia and Europe in 2021 have demonstrated that there is a need to rethink preparedness and move beyond the linear logic of risk where probabilities of an event can be calculated and activities planned.  Anticipation is not always possible.

What are co-located hazards?

By co-located hazards, we refer to the incidence of closely timed or concurrent extreme weather events (droughts followed by floods, for example) especially in contexts where there is limited or no prior record of occurrence. This, we argue creates a form of radical uncertainty, a situation where the past is no longer a good guide to what the future might hold. For instance, in the case of co-location of droughts and floods, these events have different temporal scales; droughts can build over a period of time while floods are caused by high precipitation events that can occur very suddenly.

Uncertainty around the scale, incidence and impact of these extreme events can be complicated because they often intersect with drivers in political economy compounding or cascading into existing problems related to environmental conditions, such as water quality, health, food and energy access. If such events happen concurrently, they also require different levels of preparation and response from agencies as well as local communities.

Our research, so far, shows that while local people may be attuned to coping with climate variability in the form of droughts, the rapid rise of extreme weather events in the form of floods and high climatic variability often constrains their traditional response. Moreover, wider factors in the political economy (such as loss of grazing lands, infrastructure development, access to insurance or subsidies, poor social protection policies, and effects of the lockdown in this case) also limit people’s adaptive capacity to live with current as well as future extremes.

In this context, top-down and narrow framings around disaster response limit us from questioning and addressing the structural causes of vulnerability and injustices that leave poor people to bear the brunt of these cascading extreme events. Preparedness is often seen from the vantage point of decision-makers and managed within geopolitical borders that often do not relate to the physical realities of the communities and villages on the ground. These disparities further complicate the challenges of ‘being prepared’ especially for vulnerable communities such as migrants, farmers, pastoralists, disabled people, etc.

For example, since 2016, family farms in the drylands of Banaskantha (a district in Gujarat and one of our ANTICIPATE research sites) have suffered two episodes of extreme dry and wet spells co-occurring at an interval of a few months. This has led to repeated loss of crops and damage to fodder and other agriculture products. However, experience and awareness of these “double”, “repeat”, “cascading”, and “multiple” hazards and their impact has remained with the affected individuals, families, or communities at the local level, and not considered by regional or national responses.

Reimagining preparedness

In our ongoing project ANTICIPATE, funded by the British Academy, we are examining how different actors forecast and prepare for these co-located hazards (droughts and floods) in the arid and semi-arid regions of Gujarat (India), and whether and how these practices can be integrated for building preparedness. We are working with marginal communities (farmers, daily wage labourers, migrant workers, women) in Gujarat to understand the compounded and cascading effects of co-located hazards.  We seek to centre the voices of those directly impacted by extreme climatic variability and the systemic shortcomings of current mitigation measures by working with local communities. The study seeks to prioritise local expertise and promote sustainable community-owned outcomes.

Through art forms, atmospheric science and ethnographic work, we are exploring how preparedness can be co-produced with marginal communities in a way that their voices, concerns and experiences are centred in decision-making and programming.

Follow us on Twitter #ANTICIPATEResearch.

*This term was coined by our colleague and team member, Krishna AchutaRao

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