NSF grant awarded for resilience research in Zambia

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Our group is beginning a new research program regarding links between climate variability, social decision making, and resilience in subsistence dryland agricultural communities of southern and eastern Zambia

Rural livelihoods in many parts of the world are dramatically affected by climate variability and its corresponding impact on water availability and provision of ecosystem services. This is particularly the case in the semi-arid tropics (SAT), which contain 22% of the world’s population and high concentrations of chronic poverty and inadequate food consumption. Much of the vulnerability of smallholders within the SAT is driven by surface hydrological dynamics; both directly through rainfall variability and indirectly through additional human- or climate-induced land and water degradation. When crop yields decline due to insufficient or in some cases excessive precipitation, households adopt various coping strategies to survive, many of which have an explicitly spatial dimension.

We’ve just received a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The research, “ESE: Collaborative Research: Spatial Resilience of Agriculturalists to Coupled Ecological and Hydrological Variability in Rural Zambia”, is supported by the Division of Behavior and Cognative Sciences at NSF, and is part of the NSF Program in Environment, Society, and the Economy (ESE). Along with Tom Evans from the Department of Geography at Indiana our group will examine the resilience of smallholders in Zambia to climate variability by examining the spatial patterns of water availability and agricultural decision-making. The project particularly focuses on the diversity of coping strategies that smallholders in different locations employ to survive periods of crop failure such as skipping meals, seeking off-farm work opportunities or relying on food aid. The decision and option to choose different coping mechanisms depends on a complex set of social and ecological conditions such as precipitation patterns, surface topography, the spatial distribution of land holdings, social norms within a community and the regional availability of food aid. This project will examine these complex dynamics in two regions of Zambia that present a range of hydrological/climate regimes and socio-economic conditions. Specifically, we will focus on one province with low annual precipitation and relatively frequent periods of drought, and a second province with moderate annual rainfall and less severe seasonal drought.

This research will lead to new understanding of the relationship between hydrological dynamics and the ability of smallholders to respond to climate variability in the semi-arid tropics. While a substantial amount of research has addressed the resilience of systems to understand how societies cope with social or ecological disturbances, the spatial dimensions of resilience have not been fully explored. The results from this research will identify what coping strategies smallholders use in different land use and hydrological contexts and articulate the spatial dimensions of those coping strategies. This project will also develop new methods to identify ‘hotspots’ of vulnerability given specific scenarios for future climate variability that has implications for development initiatives and food aid distribution activities.