Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Link Pack #13: A great paper on vulnerability

Reading: Are you a vulnerability researcher? There's a great new paper by James Ford and others reviewing vulnerability research and defining a forward-looking research agenda. From a review of 587 papers, they identify seven concerns in vulnerability research from 1990 to 2016. They are: neglect of social drivers, promotion of a static under- standing of human-environment interactions, vagueness about the concept of vulnerability, neglect of cross-scale interactions, passive and negative framing, limited influence on decision-making, and limited collaboration across disciplines. 

Most usefully, the paper crosschecks if each concern is substantiated by the literature. For example, they find the concern that social drivers of vulnerability are neglected has limited supporting evidence since foundational work in vulnerability (such as Watts and Bohle's work on famine and vulnerability, Blaikie and Wisner's seminal work on the political economy of risk, and Jesse Ribot's thesis that vulnerability does not fall from the sky) have been discussing non-climatic drivers of vulnerability since the late 1980s.

One big takeaway for me from the paper was that the authors found an absence of studies evaluating whether vulnerability research is informing decision-making. Given the amount of funds going into vulnerability alleviation projects, this appears to be a critical gap to filled, and one that can be addressed with an eye on the IPCC's AR6 which is just kicking off.
"While there still remains little consensus about its precise meaning— and the success of studies seeking to bring clarity to vulnerability research is debatable—there is agreement that vulnerability denotes susceptibility to harm, and is composed of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity... In this view, rather than striving for a unified approach to vulnerability, researchers should be aware of the diverse approaches that exist, and be explicit about the concepts they use."
The paper closes on a positive note with directions for future research, practice, and funding. The authors call for methodological development (something we have been trying to do within the ASSAR project through life history interviews), expanding future scenarios work that is predominantly quantitative and focussed on biophysical aspects, reimagining case studies to draw on their rich empirics but feed into broader meta-analyses, and revisiting past research to inform present concerns and gaps. All of this of course points towards a reorientation of how vulnerability funding is given, both in terms of duration and topics of focus.   

For more insights, do read the paper! Suggest reading with McDowell et al. 2016 which also focusses on advances and gaps in vulnerability research but restricts itself to the community scale (both papers are open access).

Read previous link packs here

Monday, 10 September 2018

Bigfoot: On being a climate scientist that flies

Flying around the globe to attend climate change conferences that discuss the importance of flying less has got to be one of the most ironical parts of my job. On the one hand, the research world is moving towards being more connected. We're in an age of multi-country studies and collaborative, international research teams; North-South partnerships and shrinking timelines to build those partnerships. On the other hand, there is a growing call for climate change researchers to introspect on their own carbon footprint from flying.

Personally, this dilemma [wanting to fly and grab all the opportunities (!) vs. seriously dealing with my Big(carbon)Foot problem] has troubled me for several years now. There is a growing online conversation on ways to solve this dilemma (see here, here and here). However, the articles I come across on flying less or no flying are often written by researchers in contexts far different from mine. The conversations I've had on low/no flying have often been with colleagues in Europe who have options of trains and buses to cross countries. You can't attend a conference in Thailand (from India) by taking an overnight bus. Getting from one end of India to another by train itself takes 3 days! So when I heard of Peter Kalmus's amazing initiative 'No Fly Climate Sci', I decided to chime in with my experiences as someone who enjoys being part of a multi-country research project and is concerned about her carbon emissions.

My piece from the No Fly Climate Sci website:

As a researcher examining the interface of climate change and livelihood shifts, reducing my carbon footprint is a professional and personal issue for me. I try to do so by walking to work, carpooling, recycling and eating less meat. However, these options are difficult to engage with when the systems and institutions in a country disincentivise them. For example, Indian cities are not particularly known for being walkable or having cycling tracks, making these options perilous (a few years ago, noted environmentalist, Sunita Narain was run over while cycling to work in Delhi).

Flying less is often put forth as a positive behavioural change with a large impact on individual emissions. I have consciously started flying less, either clubbing meetings to reduce multiple trips or taking the train if that is an option. However, again, being a researcher based in the global South, there are some challenges that are seldom recognised in narratives around ‘climate researchers must walk the talk’. First, with distances as large as they are in India, train rides can last well over 12-15 hours (and up to 24-36 hours if you are traversing the country). Taking such options might often mean travelling over the weekend, eating into time one reserves for family or self-care. Second, important conferences in my field are often held in America or Europe (e.g. Adaptation Futures 2016 was in Rotterdam, the Cities and Climate Change Conference 2018 is in Edmonton). Getting to these and showcasing one’s work is usually only possible by flying, often at a large financial and physical cost.

An argument I hear often is to not attend these conferences at all, thus eliminating the need to travel completely. Often, such suggestions come well-established researchers, with strong networks and an extensive body of work. To young researchers in my team, many of whom will use conferences to travel abroad for the first time in their life, the pros of presenting their ideas to an international audience, getting feedback on their work, and experiencing a different culture, outweighs concerns of carbon emissions. This is why, while I applaud my European colleagues who choose to take the train instead of flying from say the Netherlands to Sweden or France to the UK, I am unable to provide similar stories of restraint.

I continue to make small amends – offsetting some of the miles, using social media and livestreaming to learn of new advances in my field, and sharing with my team, opportunities to present closer to home. And though I try to fly less, as a researcher based out of South Asia and presenting on international platforms, I find it hard to do.

Postscript: 
In March this year, I was scheduled to travel to the IPCC Cities Conference in Edmonton. It would be the farthermost I'd have travelled, from my current base in Myanmar, with a large carbon footprint and great financial cost. It was an important conference in my field, would provide a great networking opportunity, and my panel on urban adaptation case studies across Asia, Africa and Latin America had been accepted and fully funded! In the end, I never got my Canadian visa on time and ended up presenting remotely. The thought of speaking through a computer to an audience far away wasn't particularly exciting. But it worked! I pre-recorded the presentation to avoid hiccups and the panel managed audience questions brilliantly. Yes, I missed meeting colleagues and researchers in person, but Twitter helped update me on key presentations. As a first timer, I was pleasantly surprised with how easy remote-presenting can be and have since then taught classes remotely, slowly chipping away at my Bigfoot!

Further reading on flying less:

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Research for (Policy) Impact

Demonstrating policy impact of research is becoming increasingly important. In countries like the UK, the Research Excellence Framework ensures that incentives are tied to demonstrating impact. While we aren't there yet in India, spaces such as IIHS and CPR India are increasingly contributing to conversations at the research-policy interface.

Podcast on research impact

In this context, I enjoyed listening to ANU's recent Policy Forum Podcast episode on policy impact, which touches upon research impact, questioning one's motives for doing research, and how to engage in meaningful research despite the neoliberalisation of higher education. Prof Mark Reed, Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University and a research impact wiz, talks of his experiences of trying to ‘make a difference’. Few things from the podcast that really spoke to me:
  • Need more thought at proposal writing stages to consider the dangers of cobbling together ill-suited research/policy/practice partners to bid for trans- and inter-disciplinary research initiatives
  • Need more training on doing interdisciplinary research that often calls for working with people with different worldviews, methodological leanings, and crucially, different motivations
  • Doing a rapid stakeholder mapping to discover and forge new, non-research partnerships is useful ongoing exercise for researchers
  • Question your motives and ability to nurture relationships over time: "If you want to make a difference, you have to be in this for the long game. This (research impact) is fundamentally about relationships and it has to be two-way...there has to be humility in these relationships."

Two papers on developing the skills, space for research impact 

Also read two interesting articles on research impact and being an engaged, impactful researcher (thanks Georgina Cundill for the recommendation!):
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) Building optimism at the environmental science-policy-practice interface through the study of bright spots in Nature Communications
Evans and Cvitanovic (2018) An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers in Palgrave Communications (here's a blog post based on the paper)
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) call for changing the terminology of 'gaps' across the science–policy–practice interfaces to a focus on 'bright spots'. This is something that has struck me in climate change adaptation research as well where there is a focus on identifying, enumerating and finding solutions to 'adaptation barriers'. Changing the narrative on this means finding leverage points and entry spaces where one learns from success AND failure instead of success stories OR examples of failure. 

The second paper refreshingly argues that being honest and humble researchers is key for impact. In my experience, humility and honesty are critical to strong, effective and inclusive research teams. I've discussed the role of empathy in scenario planning exercises and find that creating a conducive environment as a first step of impactful research is still an under-acknowledged aspect of interdisciplinary work.

The two papers also discuss the need for understanding policy in practice before being able to influence it. This is critical, especially in countries such as India, where a lot of policy influencing is hidden and policy conversations and spaces are often closed off. During my PhD, being a young female researcher who had to engage with all-male irrigation department officials, was a challenging and sometimes dangerous part of data collection. I regularly faced inappropriate invitations to visit their homes, and although unofficial conversations would have helped building a rapport so crucial for policy impact, my gender and age sharply shaped my ability and experience to nurture beyond-research relationships. 

I think the messiness and informal nature of policy making is something researchers don't appreciate fully. I look forward to reading (or perhaps writing?!) more about it, especially experiences of trying to achieve research impact in the Global South (where, I have a hunch things are messier and more closed off but that might just be a hunch). 


My own experience of research impact

In a bid to start thinking of making my own research more 'impact-friendly', earlier this year I helped collate eight farmer stories documenting bottom-up, policy-facing solutions in climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in South India.

We collected these stories of change where farmers facing significant hardship such as growing water scarcity, small landholding, and market fluctuations have overcome them through a mix of personal innovation and ingenuity, and institutional support.

We consciously decided not to publish a paper from it and instead launched a booklet in English and Kannada (the local language) and invited the farmers to speak about their experiences at the launch. Having government and civil society representatives at the launch (with whom we had built relationships over the past few years of our wider research project) made the event more meaningful. We've already had had interest from popular media (Time of IndiaIndiaSpend, Business Standard covered our work) and NGOs beyond the region have ordered the open access booklet to learn from these farmer stories. Small steps, but important nonetheless. 

Saturday, 25 August 2018

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.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

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

Paper: 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 Dailts 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.

Podcast: 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?

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 

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.


Drip irrigation is a 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 landscape of risks farmers face is critical to support local livelihoods. Picture: Chandni Singh, Bangarpet Block, Kolar.

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.

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, we found that 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. 
Picture: Chandni Singh, informal settlement in North Bangalore.

So what? Insights for sustainable adaptation


To understand the implications of these responses strategies, we used a sustainability lens and assessed select 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?).

We examined the implications of household responses using a sustainability lens and found very few strategies actually met economic, ecological and social goals. This exercise 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. Source:  Singh et al. 2018 

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.

Monday, 23 July 2018

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

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!

Book: 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.]

Paper: 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)" (p.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.

Podcast: 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!