Tropes of catastrophe have dominated conversations about climate change and its impact on communities. More often than not, terms like hazards, risks, and vulnerability tend to be deployed together to suggest a certain degree of helplessness in adapting to impending climate change. This article seeks to disrupt the projection of climate change forecasts into a future full of disasters and refugees. We present evidence of successful adaptation to climate change at household, community, and higher administrative territorial levels through a case study of Kullu valley in Himachal Pradesh. We describe the impact of climate change on the main agricultural product of the valley – apples – and the response to this impact by households and institutions in the region.
Over the last 30 years, the core production zone for apples has steadily shifted northwards towards higher elevations in the Himalayas, such that the present core production zone is more than 50 km north and 1500 feet higher than in 1986. This shift has allowed the communities at higher elevation to move into apple production with concomitant rise in disposable incomes. At the lower end, households have shifted from apples to vegetable cultivation catering to growing urban markets in north India, which has also increased their incomes compared to apple production. The article examines the suite of institutions – and their interrelationships – that have facilitated successful adaptation to climate change in the Kullu valley. Carefully examining the role of public, market, and civic institutions, we argue that democratic governance at multiple scales and articulation between institutions across scales are critical components of successful adaptation to climate change.
Patterns of change in the Kullu valley
Kullu Valley is the center of the ‘apple belt’ of Himachal Pradesh. The state promoted apple production as a means to increase household incomes started in the mid-1960s; since the early 1980s, apple production has surpassed subsistence cultivation as the dominant agriculture strategy in valley. The present paper is derived from intensive data collection in the Takoli panchayat, which is situated at the lower reaches of the valley. In the panchayat, more than 50% of private land was under apple in 1985, and sales of apples constituted more than 80% of cash income of the average household. The apple economy was booming with substantial support from the state government in the form of subsidies and infrastructure, which led to a widespread increase in well-being and prosperity across the Kullu valley.
Yet rising winter temperatures and declining snowfall associated with a general warming trend over the past few decades (Figure 1) has significantly diminished apple productivity, especially towards the lower end of the elevation gradient. The boundary of the apple belt has gradually shifted to higher elevations as has now been well documented in the Kullu Valley and elsewhere in the Himalayas (Rana et al. 2016). Takoli was already at the edge of the apple growing region, and by the early 1990s, heavy losses from several years of bad harvests led most farmers to abandon apple production.
Since then, the agricultural landscape has undergone a remarkable transition. An economy once dominated by apples has now diversified into a variety of seasonal and perennial cash crops; our survey of households revealed 26 varieties of vegetables and eight types of fruit cultivated in the Takoli panchayat. Standards of living remain high. In all major respects, Takoli is a successful case of adaptation to climate change. As Figure 2 demonstrates apple now constitutes a negligible proportion of area, production, and disposable incomes in Takoli. Since 1990, apple has been steadily replaced by several other cash crops; in this transition, farmers have been supported by a panoply of public, civic, and market institutions.
Remaking the landscape through layered interventions
To a large extent, growth in apple production was made possible by extensive state support, including subsidised access to credit, inputs, and the provision of infrastructure. Yet, even as apples reached the maximum extent of cultivation in Takoli in the mid-1980s, they were far from the only crop grown in the area. The great growth in area under production of alternative crops was to a large extent facilitated by a series of state and non-state interventions.
A project supported by German bilateral assistance in the mid-1990s built a system of drainage canals that transformed the swampy lowlands next to the Beas River into productive agricultural fields. Simultaneously, expanding availability of formal credit enabled many lowland farmers to invest in bore wells and, secure access to water in the dry, pre-monsoon months, which enabled greater intensification of vegetable production. Around the same time, a lift-irrigation system was built by the Irrigation Department in the middle hills of Takoli, which extended the range of crops that could be considered viable in these lands. Finally, the construction of a new state-run marketing facility in the southern end of Takoli in 1998 provided farmers with access to a broader network of markets across northern India. This further enabled them to experiment with new crops to cater to the expanding market demand for fresh fruits and vegetables across urban centres in north India. Each of these interventions generated new opportunities for farmers. Importantly, they were not the outcome of a policy to help farmers deal with the impact of climate change, but rather were part of regular interventions for economic development.
Patterns of agricultural diversification
While the aforementioned interventions brought about new pathways to agricultural innovation,farmers have responded to these opportunities in very different ways. Based on a survey of all households in the Takoli panchayat, we analyse relationships among household demographics, cropping strategies, access to institutions, and social relationships to explore patterns of agricultural diversification and their potential drivers.
To explore different patterns of agricultural production across households, in the study area we divided crops grown in the valley into four categories: fruits, vegetables, seed crops, and food grains. Using hierarchical cluster analysis we generated five distinct production profiles with similar kinds of production strategies according to the proportion of total land devoted to each category of agricultural crop.
To explore different patterns of agricultural production across households, in the study area we divided crops grown in the valley into four categories: fruits, vegetables, seed crops, and food grains. Using hierarchical cluster analysis we generated five distinct production Profiles with similar kinds of production strategies according to the proportion of total land devoted to each category of agricultural crop. The box plots in Figure 3 show the distribution of households in each Profile.
While each Profile is internally differentiated the Profiles help to capture some of the salient aspects of different agriculture production strategies in Takoli.
Household in Profi les 1 and 2 are the most diversified across categories of agricultural crops, but there are differences between them. Households in Profile 1 tend to grow different combinations of vegetables and fruits, with the largest (almost 50% on average) proportion of land devoted to subsistence food grains. Households in Profile 2, in contrast, tend to specialise in vegetables, with widely varying investments in food grains; many households do not produce fruits, seeds, or other crops at all.
The remaining Profiles are particularly specialised, focusing on one crop category above all others. Households in Profi le 3 devote nearly all of their land to fruit production. Households in Profile 4 specialise in a variety of vegetables. Households in Profile 5 tend to devote most of their land to food grain production, although some also produce a small amount of vegetables and fruits as well.
Institutional articulation and diversification patterns
The ability to proceed along particular diversification pathways is not simply the result of autonomous decision-making processes. Rather, we found that membership in different Profiles is associated with households’ material assets, access to natural resources, and forms of institutional support derived from their broader social networks.
In Takoli, several state institutions provide support for area farmers: the agricultural department, the horticulture department, and a research station affiliated with the Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University. These institutions provide technical information about new cropping strategies, and they often help farmers to confront challenges associated with agricultural production. Our surveys asked which institutions households interact with. We also enquired about which other households in the panchayat farmers contact for information about agriculture. Relatively few households access these institutions directly; 87 households interact with the Agriculture Department at least once annually, while only 38 and 7 interact with the Horticulture Department and Research Station respectively (out of 273). However, many households reported seeking advice from households that interact with these institutions. We mapped households’ social networks to determine their ‘closeness’ to different institutions vis-à-vis their social relationships.
Quite arguably, the diversity of livelihood portfolios undertaken by different households makes the system stronger as a whole by providing avenues for cross-fertilisation of ideas and strategies, not only within similar-placed households but also between those with very different kinds of livelihoods.
Our analysis reveals interesting relationships between households’ material assets, institutional access, and agricultural strategies. First and foremost, landholdings tend to be the largest in Profile 1 and the smallest in Profiles 4 and 5. A majority of households in Profiles 1, 2, and 4 have irrigation; few have irrigation in Profiles 3 and 5. It is not surprising that large landholdings and irrigation is associated with greater diversity across crop categories (Profiles 1 and 2). One of the fundamental differences between Profiles 4 and 5 is access to irrigation, where access to irrigation for the former supports specialisation in vegetables, whereas the latter reflects a specialisation in food grains.
The number of reported linkages with other households is the highest for households in Profile 1; unsurprisingly fruit and food grain specialisers (Profiles 3 and 5) have fewer linkages with other households. Interestingly, households in Profiles 1 and 5 both tend to have a closer linkage with the agriculture department, which often provides technical support for more rudimentary crops such as food grains. Households in Profile 1 additionally have closer linkages to the horticulture department and research station, the latter of which has often been important for the introduction of novel fruits and vegetables to the region. Households in Profiles 2-4 tend to have varying network distances to these institutions, while the network distance is highest for households in Profile 5.
Our data does not allow us to test whether there is a direct causal relationship between institutional access and different production strategies. Still, institutions play an important role in influencing livelihood strategies by facilitating the adoption of new crops and strategies as well as by addressing challenges as they come along. Social networks may evolve in relation to different informational needs, yet to the extent that social relationships play an important role in mediating institutional relationships, a households’ social position could potentially facilitate or impede access to important information. It is not surprising that generally the most diverse Profile (number 1) has the closest relationship with each of the reported institutions.
The case of Takoli represents a successful case of climate adaptation, with several lessons for how we think about the role of state support systems in providing effective climate adaptation assistance.
From first-order responses to durable livelihood transformations
First and foremost, it shows the importance of moving beyond accounts of immediate responses to initial climate threats to understand the conditions that influence long-term trajectories of change. Within the large scholarship on social responses to climate risk and change, much work continues to focus on immediate ‘first-order’ decisions and planning processes. Households, collectives, and government bodies often undertake actions in anticipation of future event or in response to observed stressors. Still, there remains a paucity of evidence of how immediate responses may shape long term trajectories of change. In the present case farmers’ decisions were all part of a broader tapestry of transformation unfolding across the landscape through layered state interventions, ongoing forms of technical assistance and support, and collective responses to them. In the end, the changes observed in Takoli were greater than any individual strategy, programme, or institution.
The need for differentiated mechanisms of support
While extensive work has now provided evidence of how institutions matter for different kinds of responses (Agrawal2010), the present account suggests the need for more systematic analysis of how multiple forms of public assistance work together to target differentiated local needs. Available institutions were accessed by very different kinds of households, depending on their natural resource and asset bases and the kinds of production strategies that they employ. Of course, not everyone has benefitted equally from the transitions in Takoli; yet the diversity of support systems has made sure that a wide variety of households benefit from at least some state support, even despite their varying capacities to pursue different production strategies. Quite arguably, the diversity of livelihood portfolios undertaken by different households makes the system stronger as a whole by providing avenues for cross-fertilisation of ideas and strategies, not only within similar-placed households but also between those with very different kinds of livelihoods.
Beyond planned adaptation
The transformations observed in this study did not result from a single authority or policy. While there is a need for planners to help to establish a range of possible priorities and mechanisms for higher-level coordination, the present case suggests that a great deal of adaptation may occur in everyday domains of engagement beyond the direct control of centralised planning authorities. At the same time the processes of adaptation documented in this case were not simply the result of individual decision-making processes. Farmers’ ability to undertake different kinds of practices were intimately tied to their sources of information and knowledge vis-à-vis their social network and the forms of state support to which they have access through these networks.
We would like to propose the concept of self-organised adaptation to describe these ongoing, multi-directional, and organic processes of engagement through which broader adaptation trajectories emerge. In making this contribution we emphasise the need to move beyond the analysis of specific programs, policies, and interventions, as well as individual decision-making processes, to theorise the broader array of institutional conditions that lead to more sustainable and secure livelihoods through long-term and incremental processes of change.
Adger, W Neil, Jon Barnett, Katrina Brown, Nadine Marshall, et al. 2013. “Cultural dimensions of climate change impacts and adaptation.” Nature Climate Change 3(2): 112–117.
Agrawal, Arun. 2010. “Local Institutions and Adaptation to Climate Change.” In: Mearns R and Norton A (eds) Social Dimensions of Climate Change: Equity and Vulnerability in a Warming World. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications, pp. 173–197.
Davidson, Debrah. 2016. Gaps in agricultural climate change research. Nature Climate Change 6, 433-435.
Fischer, Harry, and Ashwini Chhatre. 2016. Assets, livelihoods, and the ‘profile approach’ for analysis of differentiated social vulnerability in the context of climate change. Environment and Planning A, 48(4): 789-807.
Rana, Ranbir Singh, R M Bhagat, Vaibhav Kalia, and Harbans Lal. 2011. “Impact of climate change on a shift of the apple belt in Himachal Pradesh.” In Handbook of Climate Change and India: Development, Politics and Governance, ed. Navroz K. Dubash. Routledge, p. 51–62.