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Perception-based Evidence for Climate Change Policies

Anusheema Chakraborty (, Roopam Shukla (, Kamna Sachdeva ( are with the Department of Natural Resources, TERI University, New Delhi.P K Joshi ( teaches at the School of Environment Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Understanding public perceptions can greatly influence socio-economic policies, which may alter decisions of climate change policies. This article analyses information from villages of Garud tehsil in Bageshwar district, Uttarakhand, where agriculture and forest-based resources are the main sources of livelihood among communities.

Climate change is no longer considered a global issue alone, but a complex phenomenon having intangible consequences on people’s daily lives at the local level. At times this, however, is difficult to comprehend given that people might be experiencing changes in local weather patterns, which may or may not be explained by long-term changes in global climate. Although, variations in climate have led to myriad changes in ecological and social systems. It is the current rapid pace of changes in climate that is a grave concern. Climatic change and climatic variability is expected to affect ecosystems in different ways (Walther et al 2002), however, the impacts may vary regionally. These changes will not only be attributed as an impact to global climate change, but it will also interact with other stressors of development.

The Himalayan mountain belt, one of the major hotspots of climate change, has recorded an increase in maximum temperature of about 0.9°C (Dash et al 2007), while the global average warming is around 0.85°C over the last 100 years (IPCC 2013). The Himalayan region is facing enormous pressure from social and economic drivers along with the ongoing climate change (Maohua et al 2012). Although the drivers of change, if acting independently, may cause minor changes, their cumulative impacts will have drastic socio-ecological consequences. With continued increases in global average temperature, the poor and those dependent on natural resources for their livelihood, and those living in geographically isolated areas are expected to face changes in local weather patterns beyond their present capacity to cope. This raises the need to inculcate heightened levels of concern and awareness among human societies in response to changing climate. Documentation on perceptions of local communities to changing climate is crucial in order to successfully plan and implement adaptive policy measures, as their perception reflects actual impacts of climate change on natural assets and livelihoods (Halder et al 2012; Joshi and Joshi 2011; Rana et al 2013). Based on personal observations, scientific communities need to delve deeper into public attitudes and subsequent responses to climate change. This study, therefore, is an attempt to understand how people interpret climate change based on their personal experiences, which are very important for climate-based adaptive policy measures.

Understanding the Region

The Himalayan mountain ranges are known for their dense forest cover, traditional agriculture practices and farming systems, and high population density, in almost all altitudinal zones. For example, the Garud tehsil in Bageshwar district of Uttarakhand is a highly productive agricultural region because of its extreme fertile land and spacious fields. According to Census of India (2011), it consists of 185 villages, inhabiting a population of approximately 68,000. People residing in this region are mainly dependent on agriculture, forest resources and wood products for their livelihood. The region is economically very important in terms of agricultural production, mainly cereal crops such as wheat (Triticum aestivum), rice (Oryza sativa), maize (Zea mays) and barley (Hordeum vulgare). The agricultural production of any region predominantly depends on soil (quality, fertility and moisture) and water availability. Increasing temperature and precipitation patterns, including changes in seasonality of snowfall and annual variability of rainfall, can have a severe impact on agricultural yields, along with increased potential risks to forests and forest-based resources. Therefore, climate change impacts will not only challenge productivity, but it will also affect the availability of natural resources of this region.

A rapid inventory of first-hand knowledge of personal weather experiences, observations of changes in plant phenology, increase or decrease of invasive species, or pathogen/pest attacks, or human–wildlife conflicts, and overall landscape changes in the Garud valley, in response to climate change phenomena, was used to compare conditions of “present” with memories of “past” and understanding their opinion of a normal condition, which is perceived as reference. Random interviews with individuals or a group of individuals with an emphasis to know how individuals perceive climate variation benefited in interpreting regional and localised climate change impacts. The elderly for cultural narratives and direct field labourers for agricultural practices were included in the interviews. Local non-governmental organisations and village resource persons were also contacted to identify the problems being faced by people in the valley. The discussions were kept open-ended, designed to identify evidence of change in their everyday experiences of local weather patterns, to serve as a source of information, and to collect the indicators and evidence of impacts of climate change, if any.

Vulnerability to climate change impacts is not the only factor bringing changes in their day-to-day phenomena. It is also influenced by socio-economic and sociopolitical factors. The low economic status of communities with high dependency on natural resources makes them more vulnerable to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, as additional stressors to the already existing developmental stresses. In addition to the strong changes in climate, the region is facing shifts in demography and employment activities and land use changes (Figure 1). The decadal analysis based on the 2001 and 2011 Census data highlights the increasing population in the region (~8.5% in 10 years). This increase has affected the land usage pattern in the valley. The net sown area (NSA) and cultural wasteland area have also increased over the decade to approximately 8% and 4%, respectively. The extent of irrigated area has decreased (~10%) considerably indicating unsuitable conditions in which present-day agriculture is being practised. Although the region has good irrigation facilities (MoUD 2011), in current times, the extent of irrigated area has decreased even after the adoption of new irrigation mechanisms. Previously, canals were the main source of irrigation. However, the contribution of canals for irrigation has substantially decreased (~34%). Moreover, the marginal dependence on water from natural resources and wells in previous years is indicative of the adequacy of surface and groundwater availability in the past. In recent years, their contribution has completely diminished.


Socio-economic Changes

As expected, change in total population, changes in agriculture and land-use patterns and diminishing agriculture inputs act as drivers of change. As a consequence to such changes, people will opt for different livelihood strategies. Similar inferences can be drawn from the observed dynamics in worker population. The Census of India makes a distinction among workers as main and marginal workers. Main workers are those who work for six months or more, and marginal workers work less than six months. Remarkable variations can be seen in the number of main and marginal workers. Overall, agriculture workers (cultivators and labourers) have shifted from the main to marginal category with their involvement in agriculture being less than six months. Cultivators are landowners, they practise agriculture on self-owned land. A significant decline in the number of main cultivators (~13.5%) was noted over 10 years (2001–11). Increase in marginal cultivators, agriculture labourers, and other workers can be noted as well.

The aforementioned dynamics in the agriculture land-use patterns and occupation of people over the decades are also influenced by local impacts of climate change phenomena in the Himalayan region. Therefore, perception mapping was carried out to document the perceived impacts on natural assets (land, water, forest and agriculture) which negatively affect agriculture production and in turn challenge livelihood and food security of people (Figure 2, p 26).


The findings suggest that people in this valley have perceived apparent changes in climatic conditions for three main seasons, namely summer, monsoon and winter. Table 1 (p 26) lists the general consensus of changing climatic parameter and evident change in resources for three seasons. According to the respondents, climate has never been so unpredictable. The interpretation of climate change as a major cause of modification was attributed by communities. This included impacts such as prolonged dry spells in the region, along with increases in temperature as the most significant negative impact on their livelihoods.

Increased summer temperature was reported to be severely affecting agriculture production. Rising summer temperature led to a decrease in soil moisture thus affecting land fertility. In the summer months, excessive water shortage was experienced. Reduced water availability has not only affected agriculture and horticulture production in the area, but also led to forest degradation. In terms of alteration in precipitation patterns, more cases of erratic rainfall patterns over the last 8–10 years were reported. As a result, natural sources of water, such as springs and small rivulets have completely gone dry, even some of the handpumps are not functional anymore. The delay in the monsoons and erratic rainfall patterns and intensities at 3–4 month intervals (for example, changes in winter precipitation) have forced communities to further delay in sowing seeds. This invariably decreases agricultural yield, while conversely, sudden incidences of intense rainfall erode the nutritious topsoil, thereby destroying agricultural farmlands. One of the apparent changes observed over the past 30 years is the amount of snowfall in surrounding mountains. Significant increase in kurmula (white grub, a beetle which damages tubers) was reported over the past decade, damaging major cash crops and vegetables. Previously, the amount of snowfall was enough to kill the eggs of insects and pests, whereas the current scenario suggests that the increasing temperature has helped in their growth, thereby increasing the chances of infestation. The change in flowering season over the past few years is very prominent according to communities. For instance, the rhododendron (Rhododendron arboretum) now flowers in the month of February, while a few years ago, it did not until the end of March. Several studies report changes in climate to be affecting the phenological characteristics of the rhododendron species in the Kumaon region (Gaira et al 2014; Singh et al 2015). Changes can also be witnessed in the celebration of festivals, such as Phool Dehi/Phool devi, which was earlier celebrated at the end of March, but now is celebrated a month in advance.

One of the immediate impacts is on the sowing pattern of rice, which is directly dependent on the cycle of rainfall in the initial weeks. The communities also related production of fruits, such as lychee (Litchi chinensis), mango (Mangifera indica), amla (Phyllanthus emblica) and jamun (Prunus cornuta), declining over the years. Whether it is attributed to change in amount of rainfall or snowfall influencing overall water availability or pollination by insects, the current scenario shows drastic decreases in the tonnes of fruits produced annually. More incidences of attacks by wild animals (wild boars, monkeys, and other herbivores) were reported, leading to widespread crop damage. This, however, may or may not be a result of climate change, as perceived by communities. The people in the valley are mostly, directly or indirectly, dependent on agriculture for their subsistence and income. The decrease in water availability in downstream regions and its subsequent reduction in harvests for agriculture has greatly influenced food security and incomes of households. Farmers are also growing other cash crops such as onion (Allium cepa) and garlic (Allium sativum), which comparatively require less amount of water. Regardless of economic status of households, water is seen as the most important resources in this region. Change in water availability is considered a major indicator for communities in viewing impacts of climate change. Whether it is the reported decrement in the amount of water availability, or decrease in the agricultural productivity, it indicates the likely impacts of climate change.

People’s Perceptions

The documented perceptions of people correspond with the observed decadal changes in land use and irrigation facilities. Agriculture is no more seen as a profitable source of livelihood given the uncertainty in climate, markets, and high outmigration. Dynamics in worker population is a resultant of decline in agriculture productivity. However, what remains to be ascertained is, if declining agriculture production is solely resultant of changing climate, or if there are other factors affecting such shifts. Further, as reported, instances of high outmigration of younger generations to urban centres reflects aspects of livelihood insecurity. The comparatively older generation, having agriculture as their main livelihood option, face issues of livelihood as well as food security.

Our preliminary survey in this region, which is also similar to many other regions in the Himalayas, gives us a basic understanding that people need site-specific assistance, and adaptive priorities should be considered keeping in mind their interests and priorities. However, considering uncertainty of climate change and also the lack of understanding of its impacts, other livelihood options should be promoted by involving multiple stakeholders. As a possible solution, the institutional arrangements can play a key role in advocating adaptive capacity of different communities. Institutions such as self-help groups (SHGs) (present in ~24% of the villages), agriculture credits (present in ~2% of the villages) and agriculture marketing societies should be created to help people cope with and manage such adverse changes. Moreover, both individual and collective community responses to climate change impacts should be specifically categorised. Such studies would help in shaping possible adaptation measures that can be implemented based on local perceptions of climate change.

In this study, we highlight few indicators of climate change and the perception of people on climate change impacts. Such studies, however, need further analysis with respect to influence by other non-climate factors. The awareness of major indicators could form the basis of adaptation strategies with first-hand knowledge of climate response through communities. As witnessed, people’s livelihoods are at stake, particularly for those highly dependent on agriculture and forest-based resources. Planned interventions involving global, national and regional levels will not itself be sufficient enough. Adaptation approaches should be rather considered in the local planning initiatives (operational governance level). A more comprehensive approach that accounts in local practices of communities should be implemented in the climate change adaptation planning. More broadscale research on local climate-change perceptions should be integrated at the national, regional and local levels to make much more pragmatic generalisable management plans at cross-level scales.

One can argue that perceptions of climate change impacts are also influenced by socio-economic pressures, but that often can be attributed to manifestation of climate events in the recent past. Indeed, non-perception of climate change impacts could mean unpreparedness of communities; thereby making them, in togetherness, more vulnerable than usual. The way people perceive changes will directly and indirectly influence how they might respond to them, and any action with regards to tackling climate change impacts would invariably mean people’s perceptions in determining their behaviour towards proposed mitigation and adaptation strategies. In that context, tailored knowledge influenced by public perception is likely to be more influential among societies. By translating communication channels between local and scientific framings on concepts of climate change, successful implications can be mobilised. The collective ability and willingness of communities to respond to climate change in the coming years would, therefore, require greater motivation by considering ground realities and by developing site-specific strategies acknowledging climate change adaptation.


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Updated On : 14th Feb, 2018


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