Institute of the Environment 2017

Improving Livelihoods, One Forecast at a Time

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

by Paulina Jenney

One unexpected rainfall or flood can wipe out an entire family farm in Bihar, the poorest state in India and the third most populous. Severe drought, more subtle but equally as devastating, can have the same ultimate effect.

Almost 90 percent of the population lives in rural areas, and almost 80 percent of them rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. “Because it’s a farming-oriented state, climate and poverty are inextricably linked,” said Tauhidur Rahman, a native Bihari and economics professor at the University of Arizona.

Researchers based in the Institute of the Environment and Columbia University are launching an experimental effort to help Bihari farmers by producing climate information, including forecasts and advisories, and then making them available to communities in Bihar and around the world.

In India, the research team is partnering with Jeevika, a joint project of the government of Bihar and the World Bank that was initiated in 2007 to empower women through community development, microloans, and farming assistance. In the nine years since its inception, Jeevika has helped nearly six million rural households through more than 470,000 village-level women self-help groups by improving their capacity to provide for their families.

“To have effective climate services, you have to take care of the developmental barriers like literacy, empowerment, poverty, hunger,” said James Buizer, leader of the UA team of researchers involved in the project, which is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s International Research and Applications Program. “If you don’t do that, the potential of any climate service isn’t realized. Jeevika is a huge, successful program that is working on these development challenges. Our project is tapping into that.”

Jeevika, Hindi for livelihood, has long been providing seeds and farming training to Bihari women, whose ability to generate income gives them bargaining power in the home—a valuable asset in India’s predominantly patriarchal society.

“However, most of the women are accustomed to traditional farming methods, with little understanding of climate,” said Rahman, who, in addition to his lead role in the project, has served as an advisor to the World Bank for many years. “We are engaging nearly 7,000 Jeevika households in our experimental effort.”

Further, the climate information that would be most useful to farmers—long-term forecasts of 15 to 20 days, in particular—aren’t even available in Bihar but would help inform when to plant seeds.

In Bihar, the researchers will generate climate forecasts and link these to actions on the ground by the local farmers to maximize crop productivity.  The team also will investigate the most effective routes to communicate these messages. By doing so, they aim to mitigate some of the risk faced by family farmers and help Bihar officials manage the state’s natural resources.  

“Climate information is essential. If an entire crop is devastated, human beings and livestock suffer,” said Manoj Kumar, the state project manager for the livelihood initiative of Jeevika. “This will be the first instance where climate information will be implemented on such a large scale.”