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People’s knowledge – Key for adaptation

Farmers perception on climate change and their knowledge and experience on adaptation in mountain ecosystems, has enabled them to cope with extreme weather and environmental change over centuries. Integration of people’s perceptions and indigenous knowledge with available scientific knowledge about climate change could be one way of building our capacity in addressing the issue of climate change.

Farmers replace traditional wheat crops with cabbage cultivation

Himalayan mountain ecosystem is more sensitive to climate change. The people inhabited in this region largely depend on climate sensitive sectors like agriculture, livestock, forestry etc., which have the potential to break down the food and nutritional security as well as livelihood support systems.

Hill farming is highly dependent on weather and seasonal rain and any kind of changes in climate have a major effect on crop yield and food supply. Local communities of the region have widespread indigenous knowledge about climate change impacts and have been coping with this change since millennia. A study was therefore carried out in Uttarakhand from 2014 to 2016, to understand the indigenous knowledge of local people, their perceptions on climate change and the adaptation approaches followed.

The study was carried out in 54 villages selected randomly from nine mountainous districts viz. Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Pauri, Uttarkashi, Tehri Garhwal, Bageshwar, Pithoragarh, Almora and Champawat of Uttarakhand in central Himalaya. A sample of 1080 households was selected randomly for understanding people perceptions and their adaptation to climate change. Information collected through group discussions and meetings conducted at village level were verified through field surveys and personal interviews.

Community members share their perceptions on climate change impact

Community perception on climate change/variability

For rural people in central Himalayas, a good climate meant: sporadic low rainfall during March-May with  temperature between 18°C to 25°C, peak rainfall  during July-August with moderate temperature,  moderate rainfall/heavy snowfall during December/January with low temperature between 12°C to 20°C and the absence of cloud burst events. Any deviation from the past scenario was expressed as change and variability in climate.

More than 80% of the people were aware of significant changes in weather patterns over the past three decades. Their perception on changing climate was provided through examples. For instance, higher incidence of dry spells resulting in water scarcity and low agriculture productivity was highlighted among many. It was evident through decrease in water resources used by livestock, particularly in alpine pastures, forests and grazing areas over a period of 15-20 years. This was experienced by the pastoralist community of high altitude villages in Chamoli district and Pithoragarh district. People of all villages of different altitude also  indicated that low rainfall or shift in rainfall  resulted in crop failure, reduced the yield of food  grains, fodder resources, horticultural crops and livestock production, which weakened the  economic status of the farming communities. Further, they also indicated that the frequency of disease and insect/pest attack has increased many folds particularly in agri-horticultural crops (Amaranthus, Phaeolus vulgaries, citrus fruits, apple, etc.). Local inhabitants reported early flowering and fruiting (20-25 days before the scheduled timing) in medicinal plants (Allium stracheyi, Berginia ligulata,) and wild edibles (Rhododendron arboreum, Prunus cerasoides, Bombax cieba, Bauhinia variegata etc.).

Farmers altered cropping calendar in almost each climatic zone and identified suitable crops. They switched towards crops that require less water.

 

In the study villages, low production has been noticed in horticulture crops due to irregular rainfall, snowfall and rising temperatures. This has severely affected land based income generating avenues particularly in Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Nainital districts of Uttarakhand. Agriculture yield and income was declined due to uncertainty of climatic conditions such as low rainfall during sowing and high rainfall and hailstorms during crop maturity period. Forest resources, particularly green grasses and fodder, have been reduced due to low rainfall in the month of April-May. This has increased the frequency and intensity of forest fires, and has negative impact on fodder resource and livestock production system. Farming communities expressed that earlier there was plenty of perennial sources of water in the villages. But in the recent past, most of the water channels/sources have been dried up, completely.

Local communities have also reported that many grasses are damaged by insects/pests resulting in reduced quantities of fodder supplied to animals, and has negatively impacted the milk and meat production.

Community response and adaptation to climate change impacts

With response to change in weather and climate, the local inhabitants developed their adaptation strategies based on their past experience and indigenous knowledge to cope with climate change (Table 1). Farmers altered cropping calendar in almost each climatic zone and identified suitable crops. They switched towards crops that require less water like Phaseolus vulgaris, Solanum tuberosum and other vegetables. Adoption of cash crop in response to climate variability resulted in decline of the area under traditional crops. As a result, people abandoned some important crops such as Parilla frutescense, Setaria italica, Panicum miliaceum, Pisum arvense and Hibiscus cannabinus in middle elevation. Traditional legumes (Vigna unguiculata, Vigna angularis) growing between 1000-2000 m msl are facing problems of fruit setting owing to the shift in peak rainfall.

To minimize the water demand for irrigation and provide better germination of paddy, farmers started sowing presoaked seeds for nursery development. Sometimes, to cope with harsh and uncertain climatic conditions, they take the risk of harvesting crops before their full maturity, especially in the high altitude region.

Bunds of crop field are maintained to conserve rainwater. Local grass, millet and pulses having strong root system are planted on the bunds to bind the soil tightly from erosion, at middle and lower altitude.

Traditional crops are making a comeback. The traditional crops or land races have always withstood the rigors of time, escaped attacks from insects, pests, diseases and tolerated harsh climatic conditions. Owing to their qualities, farmers are interested in growing these crops in rainfed areas or even in irrigated land, where water is scarce.

Taking the benefit of climate change, many people started cultivation of medicinal plants i.e. Arnebia benthamii, Angelica glauca, Saussurea costus, Picrorhiza kurrooa,  Podophyllum hexandrum, Allium stracheyi, Pleurospermum angelicoides, etc. in the high  altitude villages linking to livelihood opportunities.

In the high altitude region of Niti valley in Chamoli and Byans and Darma valley in Pithoragarh district, transhumant pastoralism has undergone rapid changes. There has been a shift in time of their migration due to various factors including climate change. In the past, livestock were able to graze in a single pasture for many days, but now they have to move to many alpine pastures, to find nutritious grasses.

Conclusion

Addressing the challenges of climate change requires interventions that help in mitigation and adaptation. As mitigation is a long-term process and found expensive in many cases, adaptation is found to be a better option to respond to ongoing and instant threats of climate change.

People’s perception and understanding of climate change can be an important asset to adaptation to climate change. However, it is rarely taken into consideration for the design and implementation of mitigation and adaptation strategies by governments or policy planners at national and international level. Integration of people’s perceptions and indigenous knowledge with available scientific knowledge about climate change could be one way of building our capacity in addressing the issue of climate change. This calls for more scientific research, awareness raising and better access to necessary information and data base, particularly of local people knowledge and experiences on climate change.

Table 1: Community response and adaptation measures to cope up with the impacts of climate change in central Himalaya, Uttarakhand
  • Cultivation of vegetables like pea, cauliflower and cabbage under kitchen gardens at higher altitudes
  • Cultivation of papaya, banana, mango, litchi at middle altitude (700-1200 m asl)
  • Change in cropping pattern for example, cultivation of Phaseolus vulgaris is replaced with Macrotyloma uniflorum; Vigna unguiculata with Cajanus cajan; Phaseolus vulgaris with Glycine max in the villages of middle altitude (1000-1800 m asl)
  • Cultivation of Glycine max, Echinocloa frumentaceus and Elusine coracana instead of Oryza sativa at lower altitude.
  • Sowing higher quantity of seed to maintain higher density of plants to cope up with high mortality.
  • Encouraging crop-livestock integration to increase soil organic matter, thereby increasing water retention capacity of soil for longer time.
  • Adoption of alternative crops viz. Zingiber officinale and Curcuma longa, floriculture (Gladiolus spp. and Lilium spp.) and fodder crops (Pennisetum purpureum, Thysanolaena maxima etc) as livelihood options.
  • Conversion of irrigated land into rainfed due to reduced flow of water in the streams as a result of warming and low rainfall
  • Cultivation of some high value medicinal plants viz. Picrorahiza kurrooa, Arnebia benthamii, Sassurea costus, Allium strachyei, Allium humile, Angelica glauca, Carum carvi, etc., at high altitude villages.
  • Recycling weeds into soil for manuring and retaining moisture.
  • Cultivation of wheat replaced with improved variety of mustard in some villages.
  • Cultivation of fodder yielding varieties with low grain production
  • Adaptation of protected cultivation (polyhouse, shadenet, polypit etc.) for seasonal and off-seasonal vegetable cultivation.
  • Abandoned sheep/goat rearing due carrying capacity of pasture land.

Acknowledgments: Authors would like thank to the Director, G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development (GBPNIHESD), Kosi- Katarmal, Almora for providing facilities.

R K Maikhuri
G B Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment
and Sustainable Development,
Garhwal Unit, Srinagar Garhwal-246174, Uttarakhand.
E-mail: rkmaikhuri@rediffmail.com

P P Dhyani
G B Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment
and Sustainable Development,
Kosi-Katarmal, Almora- 243643, UttarakahandK. Maikhuri