Envisioning the future

Rural communities in Lakhimpur district of Assam engaged in an interesting exercise of visualising their possible futures in the context of climate change-to prepare themselves for an emergency.
Floods in Jiadhol river (Source: Amita Bhaduri)
Floods in Jiadhol river (Source: Amita Bhaduri)

Looking through that peephole where the future seems dark and bleak conjures up discomfort. We would all rather envision a better, happier tomorrow but anticipating a possible bleak future is crucial for communities to plan in the context of changes, says Dr. Petra Tschakert, Professor of Geography at Pennsylvania State University, USA.

This unique attempt to ‘envision’ climate change is called ‘Community-based Envisioning and Flexible Flood Management Planning with Field Validation’ and is part of an ongoing research on ‘Building adaptive capacity through collective learning and flexible planning in the Eastern Brahmaputra River Basin, India’ by Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based NGO working in the field of biodiversity conservation in Northeast India, together with Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and Oslo-based Centre for International Climate and Environment Research (CICERO).

The envisioning is a participatory research method employed to anticipate the possible future as the communities can see, in the context of climate change.

Petra was the main instructor at this training in Lakhimpur, Assam where people from the communities along with participants from different organisations such as ICIMOD, CICERO, Aaranyak and District Disaster Management Authority of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts of Assam came together for the exercise.

“Flooding is part of the norm in monsoons. Then, one would wonder why work on flooding if it is so part of the lives. The reason is simple. Climate change studies predict that floods in Assam, in general India and in other places is most likely to become more frequent and more severe in the next 40-50 years. This exercise tries to better prepare people in these rural communities who are exposed to climatic changes in future including more frequent and intense rainfall events that would result in flooding. The idea is to better understand not just adaptation but to build adaptive capacity of communities exposed to climate change”, she commented.

Assam has a long history of tradition of flood management, but those are primarily in terms of structural interventions, including embankments. While it is no secret that embankments have failed and disappointed people very often, this exercise proposes something called anticipatory learning- to learn about the future even though we can’t really predict it.

Step 1: The community members are encouraged to map their area and indicate which area gets flooded every year or under extreme flood events and explain their flood history (as far as they would remember depending on the eldest people who show up) by using the map as a guiding tool.

Step 2: Next is community-based monitoring. Here the community members are trained to use a rain gauge and a thermometer and two other simple tools to measure rainfall and temperature. Along with this, they measure two other variables they think would be interesting or important to measure in the context of flooding, such as the depth of the water during high rainfall events or the spatial extension of sand casting/siltation. This is done because often people do not collect systematic data to show or know for themselves what the trends over a year or two years are. Knowing these trends facilitates the third step – envisioning the future.

Once you have paid attention to current trends, say you know that the highest siltation is in the month of September, you then can prepare better for it. Again, if you see that the siltation is twice as much territory as the year before, what does that mean for 20 years from now for the communities, if the trend continues? What does that mean if the rainfall events and flooding gets twice as frequent or twice as severe and what does that do to sandcasting or siltation? So the tendency to keep track of changes by just observing and taking measurement allows people to better extract these trends into the future.

Step 3: Last, is to produce what is called the flexible flood management plans using the output of the envisioning exercise. The adaptive measures in the plan would be a combination of structural flood control measures such as sand tubes or embankments as well as non-structural measures such as community consultation, awareness on climate change, community decision-making, community contribution to the district, understanding the climate action plan, understanding the district level disaster risk management plan, informing decision makers on realities that exists in communities and so on. These measures differ from community to community and could also build on the local coping mechanisms people already have.

“That does not mean however, that the entire responsibility is on people’s shoulders rather it just means that people are assured they have the agency to undertake measures, to prepare, to take their plans to the district level on the basis of the data and trends they have. It is a way to give people the power to undertake action themselves and when they cannot anymore, to go with a substantial amount of evidence to the district for assistance”, Petra remarked.