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Science as development aid: India undergoing (climate) change

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​Extreme droughts have long threatened the lives of small farmers in the state of Odisha in India. In recent years, however, the number of natural disasters has increased. Science can play an important role to better enable those affected on site to help themselves. As part of a working group located in Müncheberg in Brandenburg, Indian doctoral student Anu Susan Sam is looking for solutions for one of the worst affected regions in India.

Insidiously the disaster reveals itself. In the beginning the people in the East Indian state Odisha are still waiting for the monsoon, which usually brings rain to the fields of small farmers between the beginning of June and the end of September and lets their crops grow. With each new day of sunshine their hopes fade. The lack of rain is becoming increasingly a life-threatening disaster for the rural population in India. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), approximately 4.25 million people died between 1900-2015 as a consequence of extreme droughts. Odisha experienced 49 floods, 30 droughts and 11 hurricanes during this period. Ongoing climate change has exacerbated this trend in recent years. Anu Susan Sam, a native Indian and PhD student at the Institute of Socio-Economics of the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) has now, together with her colleagues, researched one of the worst affected regions of India for the first time: What conditions prevail locally? What are the risk factors? What is needed most, where could development aid be best applied? Her findings are not only of interest for crisis management in this region, but also contain important approaches for other arid areas and for dealing with climate change in the affected regions. 

Odisha is one of the poorest of the 29 Indian federal states. The life of the farmers in the villages even without natural disasters is one characterised by poverty, economic underdevelopment and exclusion. More than 80 percent are small farmers who cultivate their fields in the same way as it has been handed down from generation to generation. Their only resource is often an oxcart. They can often not afford fertilizer, plant protection products and irrigation. They live in windowless mud huts with low thatched roofs, which can hardly withstand the storms. More than 95 percent of the households have neither a water connection nor toilets. Diarrhoeal diseases, allergies, skin diseases, and respiratory diseases are widespread. Most of the villagers are illiterate. While the sons are sometimes sent to school, daughters have to help in the household. The devastating droughts of recent years also often destroy the last bit of livelihood remaining to the people. The worst thing is the loss of the harvest. Many do not survive the bitter famine.


Lack of education and poverty are the biggest risk factors

In order to thoroughly investigate the situation of traditional small farmers in this region, Anu Susan Sam interviewed 157 households in four different communities. Data was collected on population structure, on livelihood, on health, on social networks, on physical, financial and natural resources, as well as on the effects of natural disasters on the families. In this way, a network of information about risk factors and interactions was created. 

​During her investigations, Anu Susan Sam found out that the lives of these people were under even greater risk due to the ongoing climate change. The people in the villages of Odisha often have no financial reserves, are mostly uninsured and relief efforts only very rarely reach them. And yet there are tiny differences between the villages. Households which, in addition to cultivating fields, also keep cows, buffaloes, goats and chickens are less vulnerable. Families who can send their sons to building sites, factories and restaurants outside the village have a reliable income. A minimum level of health care strengthens them for these difficult periods. »Our studies show that improvement of health facilities, adequate water supply and food security would substantially reduce human exposure to natural disasters«, says Anu Susan Sam. »But the most important thing is the literacy of the people, especially of the women and girls, who often bear the responsibility for feeding the entire family. With knowledge, e.g. adapting the cultivation of their fields to climatic change, they can break new ground, control their destiny even better themselves – in the village, but also outside.« This first study is the prelude to further research in the region. In a next step, the ambitious young researcher wants to penetrate even deeper into society: Plans include studies on the role of women and on the issue of labour migration.


Science as development aid

Anu Susan Sam came to ZALF via the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and is already the fifth employee from a developing country to be supervised by the Deputy Director of the Institute of Socio-Economics, Prof. Harald Kaechele. »I train scientists who can speak on international issues such as climate change, labor migration and food security in a scientific context. With our research work and field studies on site, we offer practical solutions which are also transferable to other affected regions. Back in their home countries, the researchers can then campaign within institutions and projects, so that financial resources for example are invested where they can actually achieve something.« This is science as development aid.​


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