Published on November 20, 2007
A cloud is passing by in the sky. When it stops above our village, It will rain, it will rain
"A Clound is passing by in the sky.
When it stops above our village, it will rain, it will rain."
Sung by a schoolboy in the small village of Kundai in Udaipur, southern Rajasthan, the lines above from a simple song speak of the fragile hopes of villagers whose lives depend on the whims of nature.
Kundai hunches down in a valley surrounded by high mountains, an area defined as semi-arid. Clouds do pass over the village but it's rare that any will spare even a drop of rain on their journey to the plains.
On the day our party of nine journalists from across Asia arrive, a scorching sun has sent the mercury up to 40.5 Celsius. The dry valley forms a sun-bleached canvas on which the colourful saree-clad women stand out all the more.
But on the blackboard in front of the Agro-met - the local meteorological station - a temperature of 16 C has been recorded. It was from 7.30 that morning, just a few hours before our arrival.
"We are living under harsh and extreme climatic conditions," says Gokul Chand, the village headman.
Most of Kundai's residents are poor farmers whose livelihoods are now suffering the impact of these new conditions. Good news has arrived though in the form of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which has selected the village as a pioneer site for its project to find ways for communities to adapt to climate change.
Following over two years of consultation with villagers and local organisations, the SDC last year installed the Agro-met in the village as part of its programme titled "Vulnerability Assessment and Enhancing Adaptive Capacity to Climate Change in Semi-arid Areas", known in the area as the V and A.
"Reducing the vulnerability of rural villagers who live in harsh climatic regions and enhancing their capacity to better cope with the adverse impacts of climate change is vital," says NR Jagannath, SDC's senior programme officer.
Just four simple instruments have been installed at the met station to measure temperature, air humidity, rainfall and wind direction. According to Jagannath, the intention was to give the villagers simple equipment that wouldn't be beyond their capacity to operate and maintain.
Twice a day Chand, his daughter and one other villager arrive to take readings at the agro-met.
"If there's at least 25mm of rain each day for 15 days running, I'll organise a meeting to tell the villagers that we can start sowing seeds, as the soil will contain enough moisture," says Chand, adding that the villagers can no longer make their own predictions of when to plant in the face of the rapid fluctuations in soil and climate conditions in recent years.
Chand admits to knowing little about the global issues of climate change, but growing up he's seen the changes in the village with his own eyes.
Fertile through irrigation, Kundai 20 years ago was known as the sugar bowl of Udaipur. Nowadays there's not much evidence of sugarcane, a thirsty crop that's disappeared through erratic rainfall and falling irrigation-channel levels. Families here now make a living by harvesting wheat and raising cattle and goats.
Variations in the weather are nothing new to Kundai villagers and in the past they've always found ways of adapting. However, their resourcefulness might not be enough when it comes to climate change.
Martin Krause, the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) climate change technical advisor for Asia and the Pacific, says climate change is bringing variations in the environment beyond the "coping range" of many communities. That's why the UNDP is urging the countries to focus more on adaptation to climate change.
"Finding means of adaptation extends the coping range to help farmers maintain a livelihood through drought periods that are getting longer," Krause said during the UNDP's workshop on climate change and human development recently held in Manesar, India.
Aware that the small village of 792 inhabitants would be faced with a drier climate in the future, the practices introduced by the V and A programme have been aimed at water conservation and moisture retention in the soil. The programme has succeeded in convincing villagers to contribute some of their own land, which has been fenced off, left uncultivated and declared protected pasture. Even cattle are kept from grazing it.
"We want to preserve the grass cover so that the soil retains its moisture," says TN Balasubramanian, a climate scientist and consultant to the V and A programme.
Additionally, all 107 open wells in the village are to be renovated to increase storage capacity, and small "check" dams are being built to slow the flow of water down the mountain when it rains.
So far, Kundai is one of only a small number of vulnerable communities in developing countries where preparations for climate change are underway. Though the knock-on effects of climate change have been alarming scientists for years, the world is still a long way from finding means to adapt, said Krause.
The UN conference on climate change being held in Bali next month is the next big chance for scientists, environment experts and policy makers to find ways of increasing the number of Kundai-like communities, the climate-change adapters.