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Community Action Plans: Learning the Art of Compromise in Serving Local Visions

This post originally appeared on the website of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Science & Technology Policy Research in July 2016. See the original post here.

As we dodge potholes on the highway from Kazungula to Sesheke, the bush smolders on the shoulders of the road. Men pause in the heat of the day from clearing brush, squatting in small patches of shade on the side of the road. When I ask the Zambia Red Cross Society (ZRCS)’s Disaster Management Officer, Samuel Mutambo, seated beside me about the fires, his brow furrows. We are in the midst of a week monitoring activities associated with the Building Resilient African Communities (BRACES) program supported by the American Red Cross and are on our way to check on communities and deliver materials for the implementation of local action plans in Kazungula and Mwandi districts. Samuel, still troubled by the sight outside our window, launches into a thoughtful explanation. The forest burning is common here I come to learn, along with many other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Zambia’s Energy Regulation Board, approximately 75% of Zambians live off the grid without electricity (a rate that rises to 95% in rural areas), where firewood serves as one of their only forms of fuel, heat, and light. While rural Zambians often shoulder the blame for statistics on the growing rate of deforestation (according to the Times of Zambia, now approaching 300,000 hectares per year), the reality is not so simple.

Even in Lusaka, Zambia’s rapidly developing capital, people who live with modern conveniences and access to more sustainable fuel alternatives often choose charcoal for cooking traditional dishes over their outdoor charcoal stoves. This urban consumption of forest resources has been exacerbated by the growing frequency of power cuts and load-shedding in urban areas which leaves vast swathes of Lusaka without power on a daily basis. Getting a meal on the table often means lighting up a bag of charcoal. Rural communities, like those along the road between Sesheke and Kazungula, serve as suppliers in a market currently estimated to be worth more than US $100 million (Ngosa, 2014).

The Zambia Red Cross Society (ZRCS)’s BRACES project seeks to combat such ‘destruction of the environment’ by empowering communities to manage local forest and land resources in ways that build rather than erode their resilience. While this aim is noble, its implementation is not always so straightforward on the ground, particularly when the approach depends on residents identifying their own needs through community action plans. This becomes evident during our first stop in a cluster of huts in the community of Sikaunzwe. We are delivering axes to the local head of the Satellite Disaster Management Committee (SDMC), so that remote communities gardening in the bush could clear a track to the main road to get their goods to market. Not having known exactly what we were delivering, I have to laugh at the profound irony as we, as part of a climate resilience intervention, stack hatchets in the shade of a hut that also has dozens of bags of charcoal waiting to be carried to the highway. I ask Samuel, trying to suppress the doubt in my voice, how we know that the axes will be used to clear the road and not in the production of local charcoal (certainly more profitable than selling tomatoes and okra!).

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Samuel laughs. He knows where I am going. He assures me that the axes will be used for widening the road so that buyers may better access the vegetables grown through the BRACES program. Here, SDMCs carefully manage the tools they are provided and they cannot just be used for anything. Still, even Samuel admits that the possibility of the axes being used for other means remains. This, however, is the compromise he and others must be willing to make if they take seriously the self-proclaimed needs of communities. They have to learn to trust in order to build a reciprocal exchange with communities. The longer I have time to reflect on my own internal conflict over distributing axes, which could very well be used to exacerbate the forest’s felling, however, the less crazy it feels. Anything less than this commitment to local self-determination, I came to realize, would be paternal and colonial, another unidirectional intervention rooted in ‘education’ and coercion that so often occurs in the development industry and that the ZRCS works hard not to reproduce. When they give a community tools, they never have full control over how the community uses them. In the end, the lesson becomes about having a relationship that does not breed doubt but trust.

Having studied the limits of local participation in resilience interventions in distant river basins in Nepal and India, I find the ZRCS’s commitment to local visions in rural Zambian communities inspiring. Community needs are being identified by the people who know their own vulnerability best, and the ZRCS functions primarily as a facilitator, doing its best to provide materials for activities that communities propose while encouraging independent replication and the innovation of local solutions that do not require outside assistance.

During the course of our week in the field, in addition to handing out axes, we also deliver timber and tin to construct toilets for the elderly, renovate an abandoned bore well to provide water access at a local school, and distribute bags of sawdust to be used in the construction of fuel-efficient stoves. Here, I learn, in the loamy soils of the Zambezi River’s floodplains, drinking water is often brackish and toilets collapse constantly in the easily erodible sand. The large tubular baskets we carry lashed to the back of the pick-up truck will be lined with plastic and used by the community to construct stable outhouses that are less likely to pollute the water table.

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As I stand in the sun, watching the school children of Situlu, half of whom are barefoot, assemble in a knot watching for over an hour until their broken pump once again draws water, I am struck by the simplicity of the actions we call “building resilience.” Fixing a water pump, building a toilet, providing chickens that can sustainably reproduce a local source of protein. I say this not to belittle the important work that the ZRCS and its donors are doing in these communities, rather to highlight the fact that building resilience must not be romanticized. In most parts of the world resilience is not grand, a single transformative act, nor a project that swoops in and leaves people supposedly ‘secure.’ Rather, building resilience from the ground in places like Zambia and across the developing world is more often a modest endeavor: a long process of taking steps toward bringing people the things that so many of us in the world have already come to take for granted.

It is humility I now feel when we drive past bags of charcoal for sale by men and women squatting on the side of the road. While the current rates of deforestation sweeping rural Zambia are certainly of concern and warrant intervention, how exactly this is carried out is important. We, as both academics studying these interventions and development/humanitarian workers contributing directly to them, should be careful about the way in which we position blame and the assumptions we make about people’s economic alternatives. When it comes down to it, people use charcoal and depend on selling it to a growing urban population to feed their families. Any intervention must be grounded in this reality.

Certainly if we expect people in the bush to change their livelihoods, to find other sources of income than supplying charcoal to urban markets, then it seems to me that all of us—particularly wealthy Lusakans and Americans supporting such interventions—should also consider the ways in which resilience, even in the thickets of rural Zambia, requires all of us to change. This includes how much we consume, what we eat, and when faced with climate change, the moral stories we tell of who needs to transform their way of living. Responsibility for both climate change and its solutions falls much further than upon the shoulders of a man with an axe.

References
Ngosa, S. (2014, November 20). Exploring New Forms of Cooking EnergyTimes of Zambia.

See photo gallery of Sierra’s Red Cross-Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship in Zambia.

 

Adaptive Small Scale Farming on the Zambezi River Floodplain

This post originally appeared on the website of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Science & Technology Policy Research in June 2016. See the original post here.

The truck fishtailed in deep sand as we rumbled out an unmarked track into the bush toward Sikaunzwe, a community situated along the Zambezi River on Zambia’s southern border. As an intern in Zambia for two and a half months through the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, I was traveling with the Zambia Red Cross Society (ZRCS)’s Disaster Management Officer, Samuel Mutambo, and District Project Officer, Emmanuel Mudenda. We had left the ZRCS field office in Kazungula, six hours from the capital of Lusaka in Zambia’s southern province, almost an hour ago to monitor community interventions as part of the Building Resilient African Communities (BRACES) program supported by the American Red Cross. The objective of this program is to increase the security and resilience of rural communities in the three southern districts of Kazungula, Mwandi and Sesheke, which are particularly vulnerable to droughts and flooding within the Zambezi River Basin.

Key to BRACES’ goal of achieving local resilience is the diversification of livelihood strategies to sustain households economically through times of climactic variability and deep uncertainty. While this region of Zambia has benefited from investment by the Red Cross in early warning systems for floods due to its proximity to the Zambezi River, the communities here are currently struggling through an extended period of drought (see: New York Times article, Climate Change Hits Hard in Zambia, an African Success Story). Since one of the interventions under BRACES is to support the development of small-scale sustainable agriculture, my colleagues were particular keen on learning how beneficiaries were coping with the lack of water. Climbing out of the truck in Sikaunzwe, we bushwhacked through neck-high grasses to several plots carved out of the bush above a sandy wash. Dry except for a few stagnant pools, this water source continues to sustain more than a dozen gardens strung along its banks. Scrambling down into the channel, we found two women crouching near a pit that they have dug into the sand. Using a bowl, they dished water into a bucket. When it is full, they carried it up the bank to irrigate their crops.

Following the women into their gardens, we found the plots dominated by tomato plants, heavy with green fruits and lashed to stakes for support. Once ripe, these will be carried to the road to sell to buyers. I am reminded of my eight-hour bus ride from the capital of Lusaka; every time we pulled off the road women would emerge from patches of shade, raising plates of stacked red tomatoes to the bus window. This is one way small pockets of cash come to circulate in the region’s villages. BRACES, in an effort to support the expansion of income at the household level, supports farmers by supplying them with a variety of seeds and irrigation equipment. As a result, even those farmers who had been gardening for decades were able to expand their diversity of vegetables under production. Some had even begun to find a pathway out of poverty. One farmer, we spoke with outside the village of Kawewa, had entered the BRACES program with only a few plants. However, the following year with access to a pump and irrigation tubing provided by the program, he was able to exponentially expand his land under cultivation. Following him through freshly tilled fields, we listened to him describe the crops he planned to plant this season and the calculations of his anticipated profits.

While this farmer’s tale deeply resonates with resilience, not all gardens offer such financial advancement. Many barriers impede the translation of seeds into crops, and ultimately into cash. It is not a simple story of merely having the motivation.

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Not all households, for example, have a reliable water source to draw from. Some have to dig their water from the sand. Others are limited by their capacity to access seeds. While the Red Cross BRACES program provides seeds to its beneficiaries, the ultimate goal is for farmers to be financially secure enough to purchase their own stocks. For some women we talked to, however, being forced to travel several hours by bus to Livingstone to purchase seeds, which are not sold locally, makes sustainability a challenge. While one woman explained that she can save seeds from some crops like okra, the varieties of cabbage, rabe, and tomatoes that most customers prefer are hybrid and must be purchased each season. Even corn, a Zambian staple, is increasingly planted as a hybrid, its sterile kernels provide no prospect for rejuvenation.

Thus, reliance on annual seed subsidies has become a reality of what it means to be a farmer. Even as the Red Cross works to get people to a place where they can afford to buy their own seeds, their dependency risks getting displaced to corporations that control the circulation of genetically modified seeds. While resilience, here at least as BRACES defines it, means creeping out of poverty with each kilo of tomatoes sold, it seems worth considering what crops are indigenous with seeds capable of being harvested and banked. Perhaps resilience can become more than capturing cash by serving the desires of markets, but by shaping what we choose to eat (e.g. local, heirloom vegetables over foreign hybrids) to begin with.

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In the meantime, even in the midst of growing modern hybrids, villagers continue to lean on indigenous knowledge and traditional strategies for securing good yields. As we walked among the rows of heavy-headed tomatoes, I noticed long furrows of smoldering cow manure along the edges of the garden. These fires, I was told, had been lit overnight to ward off the cold and protect the vulnerable fruits of the tomato from freezing. Although none of the ZRCS staff whom I was with had seen this adaptive technology before, we were assured this was a quite common practice in the community. The work of resilience, I am learning, is not only about teaching innovative ways to change, but also about learning old ways of survival.

See photo gallery of Sierra’s Red Cross-Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship in Zambia.

Living with Floods in Nepal’s Karnali River Basin

This post originally appeared on the University of Colorado Boulder’s Tibet Himalaya Initiative’s website on September 7, 2015. View the original post here.

Photo Essay by Sierra Gladfelter

Climate change is expected to express itself in South Asia in numerous ways, including through an increasingly unpredictable and more intense monsoon. Already, floods triggered by relentless rainfall, associated landslides, and the failure of man-made dams, account for a greater proportion of deaths and damages than any other natural disaster in the Himalaya.

Rajapur, an island that sits between two flood-prone arms of western Nepal’s Karnali River just a few miles above the Indian border, is no exception to this trend. In August of 2014, an unprecedented flood struck Nepal’s Bardiya and Darchula districts, claiming 100 lives, destroying over 14,500 homes, and displacing nearly 80,000 people. While many individuals have still not directly received assistance in recovery, the Nepali government has responded by initiating a multi-year river training project to embank over 40 kilometers of the Karnali’s bed. Non-governmental organizations have also funded interventions in the region, including an early warning system that relays river level and rainfall data from an upstream gauging station to vulnerable communities downstream via mobile phone. This network, which serves 52,000 people in Nepal’s lower Karnali basin alone, is also being extended across the border into India to support rural communities living on the margins of Uttar Pradesh.

These photos, taken during fieldwork for my Master’s thesis in July 2015, document the impacts of inundation in the Kanali River Basin and the creative ways people have adapted to live with floods. While both embankments and early warning systems each have a role to play in mitigating the impacts of flooding, they certainly do not solve everything. My goal then—in both this essay and my broader project—is to identify the places where people remain very much on their own in adapting to floods, while also seeking to understand the complicated ways in which the impacts of climate change and development become entangled in a specific place.

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Fishing the Karnali River: The Karnali River originates in the snowy reaches of Mount Kailash and enters the Himalayan foothills after plummeting 10,000 vertical feet out of Tibet. Here, the river splits upon entering the alluvial plains of the Terai opening up into braided channels that deposit rich soils onto the floodplains of northern India and southern Nepal.
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Agriculture in the Terai: The people who farm the banks of the Karnali River and occupy Rajapur island are primarily Tharus, the ethnic group indigenous to Nepal’s Terai. Over the last 50 years, many Paharis (hill people) have also migrated to the region due to its fertile croplands. Almost the entire population of Rajapur actively practices agriculture, planting paddies during monsoon and wheat and other crops during the dry winter season.
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Flood Erosion: Even narrow kulos, or hand-dug irrigation channels, can become violent rivers tearing away roadbeds and fertile fields when the Karnali floods.
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Temporary Bridge: The concrete bridge in the distance, which connects Rajapur to the rest of Nepal via the East-West Highway, was ruined during the 2014 flood. Until the government can repair it, local residents labor to fill wire cages with stones to build a temporary roadway over the river.
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High Ground: Emergency flood shelters have been built by NGOs in strategic places across the island for community members to retreat to during times of high water. Households are warned through a series of graduated alarms as part of the early warning system.
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Visualizing Risk: Flood risk map created by residents as part of an NGO-initiated community-based vulnerability assessment. Red triangles indicate homes in the village most at risk due to their proximity to the river and easily eroded mud and earthen design.
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Escape: Actors and actresses demonstrate how to evacuate a pregnant woman and other vulnerable community members to safety during a traveling street performance.
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Flash Flood in the Hills Above: Upstream from Rajapur, flash floods tear out of the Chure hills, destroying villages and adding volume to the already swollen Karnali River during monsoon.
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Himalayan Exit: Karnali River in the canyon at Chisapani, where river level and rainfall data is collected by a gauge reader employed by Nepal’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. Here the Karnali River is forced through a narrow channel as it churns out of the foothills before spreading onto the Terai.
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Reading the River: Gauge reader at Chisapani who has been reading the river here since she was a small child. Her father did this job before her until he slipped to his death while monitoring the flood of 1989. Although most downstream residents have never met her, she is revered as a hero for the warning she provides so that others may save their lives.
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Higher Walls: This brand new 1.4 km embankment is positioned in the area where the older, lower wall breached during the devastating 2014 flood sweeping away a swath of jungle and a small Hindu temple.
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Newly built embankment instills hope in many hearts that it will offer some protection to the homes and fields that border the Karnali.
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Belief in Embankments: This man asked me to take his picture and share his story. His home in the background was the only structure in the village to withstand the 2014 flood despite severe damage. At 77-years-old and with tears in his eyes, he told me how he had labored for weeks on constructing the government-sponsored embankment in front of his house and even donated his own land to the project.
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The Other Side of Embankments: Despite the protection they provide, embankments also have another side. This picture illustrates the immediate process of waterlogging that occurs following construction, often leading to the inundation of fields, which spoils crops and can force relocation.
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Designed to Drain: This newly constructed embankment has a functioning anti-flood lock structure for draining land behind the embankment. Theoretically, the door should say open when the river level is low, but be forced closed when the Karnali waters rise to protect farmland from getting backwashed. However, the positioning of the drains is problematic. If they are low enough to provide adequate drainage for farm fields behind the embankment, the outlets are at risk of getting suffocated by sediment in a just a few short years as Himalayan rivers deposit on average 10 cm. of sand each year.
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Uneven Positioning: House with new embankment spilling into its courtyard. While many find the protection of embankments assuring, some households must make more sacrifices then others. Here, a new stretch of embankment yet to be stabilized has been built practically on top of one village. Besides being required to donate their land to the project, families must scramble up and down the loose scree to their homes and in just two months since construction, waterlogged fields have already led to crop loss.
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Seeking a Breeze: Focus group of women from the houses beneath the embankment. I was told that they had climbed up from their courtyards to catch a breeze from the river. During our conversation, several individuals conveyed the feeling that they were already suffering more from the embankment than the protection it might offer. Elderly women complained of their struggle to get up and down the embankment’s steep sides, their inability to access their ox carts parked up on the top, and the effects of waterlogging on their fields.
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Emergency Protection: Local farmers construct an emergency embankment out of sandbags and bamboo braces to protect their fields from sand casting along the Budhi Kulo, an old irrigation channel which flows through the center of the island and now carries a significant amount of the Karnali’s waters. The project leader said that he has been begging for technical advice from district and municipal level officials for weeks but had not received any response. Thus, the farmers were left to innovate interventions on their own, cutting sand that had been previously cast on adjacent fields to fill bags and stack them against the rising water’s edge. The bamboo supports were an adaptive measure initiated by the community this year in their desperation to build a structure to hold back the floodwaters.
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Suffocating Sand: Sand deposition a foot and a half deep covering ruined rice paddies where the Budhi Kulo spilled out of its sediment-clogged bed. This land will likely never be reclaimed as even a thin layer of sand leads to a 15-year process to rehabilitate soil fertility.
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Break: Local farmers take a rest, even as the river continues to rise, from their desperate attempt to embank the Budhi Kulo before their fields are lost to sand.
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Land Underwater: A man walked us to the edge of the Karnali and pointed to an eddy in the water. Pointing to the roiling river, he explained how he used to grow paddies and vegetables where the river is now and that he still has a title to the land in the bottom of the river. He has been trying to build traditional embankments to divert the river and reclaim some of his soil.
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Traditional River Protection: The same man demonstrates with a sliver of bamboo how his ancestors built traditional “three-legged” structures to protect the riverbanks from cutting. This technique has recently been recognized and adopted with minor modifications by the Nepali government as an emergency erosion protection technique.
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Borrowed Strategies: “Porcupine” structures, inspired by traditional knowledge, constructed by the government from concrete pilings to protect the Karnali’s banks until the permanent river training project can be extended to this stretch of the river.
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Shifting Path: Man walking on the newest extension of the Karnali River Training Project. This embankment is still mostly loose sand and stone excavated from the river itself that must be reinforced with gabion wire
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Slowing the Flow: The Saryu barrage on the Babai River is very similar to others across the Terai including the Kailashpuri barrage 10 km downstream from Rajapur. These structures used for irrigation purposes and interlinking river basins by the Indians, play a controversial role in upstream flood dynamics. Nepali communities like Rajapur have complained of increased water logging, sedimentation of river beds and irrigation channels, and common instances of sand casting on their fields due to the river’s impounded waters.
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Early Warning Extensions: In July 2015, 16 community members from Nepali villages in Rajapur and the adjacent Babai river basin traveled to the Baheraich District of Uttar Pradesh India, to learn about the flooding issues that their downstream neighbors faced. This exchange between rural Nepalis and Indians both facing chronic flooding, was coordinated by NGOs on both sides of the border and involved upstream and downstream communities sharing their best practices and creative adaptation solutions.
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Mobile Networks: During the upstream-downstream exchange, individuals from Nepali communities were paired with emergency task force members from villages on the Indian side. Mobile phone numbers were exchanged so that upstream communities could relay information regarding rising water levels to villages several hours downstream. Since border villages of rural north India rarely receive timely flood warnings from their own government, this extension of the early warning system over the border has the potential to save many lives.
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Bridge to the Unknown: Residents of Rajapur stroll in the evening to the brand new bridge that will connect their previously isolated island to Nepal’s East-West highway. Less than a year ago, the only way to reach Rajapur was by ferry and many still relied on hand carved wooden canoes to access the markets in Thikapur on the Karnali’s west bank. As major traffic is routed through Rajapur, the pace at which the island develops is going to increase immensely. The precise impacts of this change are unknown. Many are hopeful that it will lift them out of poverty or at least provide greater financial opportunities. Yet as Rajapur grows, the impacts of floods, which are bound to sweep across the island again, will also be amplified in complicated ways.
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Watching a Storm Rise: Sierra Gladfelter watches a storm rise over the embanked Rapti River during fieldwork at NGO headquarters in Nepalgunj.