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Coping with Drought

Spatial resilience of agriculturalists to coupled ecological and hydrological variability in rural 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.

IU Geography professors Tom Evans and Scott Robeson in collaboration with Kelly Caylor (Princeton University Department of Civil Engineering faculty) 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. The project explores these complex dynamics in two regions of Zambia that present a range of hydrological/climate regimes and socio-economic conditions. Specifically, Evans, Caylor, and assistants 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.

Zambian landscape
▲ Agricultural areas are distributed among various topographic zones in southern Zambia.  Photo courtesy of Indiana University.

Their research will lead to a 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 is also developing 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.

The project was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Scenes from Chionongela

A street in Chionongela, Zambia
▲ Chionongela is a small village in the eastern province of Zambia.

Sister and brother rest in the shade beside the livestock pen in Chionongela, Zambia
▲ Sister and brother rest in the shade beside the livestock pen.

Children getting water from the well in Chionongela, Zambia
▲ Children getting water from the well.

Women of the house wash the clothes in a bucket and hang them to dry on tree limbs in Chionongela, Zambia
▲ Children bring water from the well to the women of the house who then wash the clothes in a bucket and hang them to dry on tree limbs.

Girl in Chionongela, Zambia, carries her younger brother on her back
▲ A girl carries her younger brother on her back.  It is common to see young children toting their younger siblings on their backs.


For a larger view of a photo, click on the image.  Photos by IU researcher Sean Sweeney.