Listening to people's
everyday experiences is at the heart of the Climate
Asia research project, the largest ever study into how people in
seven Asian countries live and deal with climate change. So it was no surprise
to me that last month I found myself in a remote Indian village doing – yes,
you've guessed it – more listening.
I was in the tiny village
of Balikuda on the coast of Odisha to continue the training of non-governmental
organisations which we've rolled out in India after launching our findings last
month. I had travelled to the village with a local NGO called Regional
Centre for Development Cooperation (RCDC) and we were there to carry out what
we called a 'co-creation session'.
This meant that instead of
focusing purely on improving the skills of the NGO's communicators, we
concentrated on gathering insights from the audience and how these can be used
to shape more effective climate change communication projects to support them.
To do this, we had come armed
with a deck of cards to get people talking. Part of the Climate Asia toolkit
which can be downloaded
here, they come in five categories: themes, objectives, audiences,
partners, formats and channels.
So, for example, if an NGO
wanted to find out the priority issues facing a community, they would hand over
the cards – with options ranging from 'education' to 'livelihoods' – and ask
them to pick the top three or arrange them in order of importance.
The insights gained
from the various combinations of the cards can help us understand the
aspirations and needs of communities with whom we work and avoid the top-down
approach that all too often marks climate change communications. The approach
also works to also break down the concept of 'climate change' into simpler
elements, such as rain, forests, agriculture, flood, drought etc.
Responding to past natural
In Balikuda, the mostly female
group we spoke to were initially reticent to give their opinions.
But when given the cards, they
told us they felt more 'in charge'of the conversation and started to give very
animated and nuanced answers.
The villagers of Balikuda know
all too well the cost of natural disasters. Located only 5k from the coast,
Balikuda was devastated by the Odisha Super cyclone of 1999 which decimated
land and livelihoods and left over 15,000 dead.
Thanks to the painstaking
efforts of the village community and RCDC, the village had successfully rebuilt
itself on a more resilient basis. They had diversified their livelihoods so
they wouldn't be so reliant on one source of income; created disaster reduction
and response teams; planned evacuation strategies and increased their general
awareness of disasters and what it means to be more resilient.
Using the cards, the group quickly identified the top five
areas where they needed information so they could improve their lives; water,
health, forests, disasters and methods to improve existing livelihoods and
Their choices reflected the findings of our Climate
Asia research in the state which found that 23% of those surveyed in Odisha
worry about not having enough drinking water and 29% fear not having enough
food. (For more detail on our findings in Odisha and in the other seven
countries in which we conducted over 33,000 interviews, visit our data
The group then matched each of the five priorities with the
formats and channels they preferred, coming up with some great ideas.
Some women suggested that information about health could
best be delivered through storylines in their favourite soap opera.
members of the group, meanwhile, said a toll-free phone service from the
Department of Agriculture would be a perfect way of getting hold of information
about best farming practices and weather information about when to sow or reap
And they had some very strong opinions about what worked
best. In terms of better agricultural practices, the women commented vociferously
that they preferred watching films or documentaries featuring examples from
other villages and told us that this is because they only trust fellow farmers.
When it came to disasters, they chose a mixture of what is
called 'on-ground activations' (street theatre, community discussion, community
screenings and posters/pamphlets) before disasters strike and then mass media
(including information on mobile) for dealing with the aftermath.
Most trusted sources
The women also identified certain institutions as being most
trustworthy: mass media (TV and Radio) and local NGOs were perceived to be the
most trusted sources. They also had faith in their local governments when it
came to information on a few specific issues such as disasters and health.
One woman commented: "Official institutions play a greater
role in the domain of health. We cannot trust any pamphlet handed out by any
and every one. Similarly in the face of a disaster we cannot evacuate unless a
trusted media source of governmental source tells us to."
Indeed, as a result of this
observation, the group came up with their own solution to how information about
emergencies should be communicated to them. "The state government should set up
a service which calls the gram panchayat (village level government) or
maybe even all of us on our mobile phones so that we know to respond in time," they said.
The sad irony was that only 12 days after we were discussing
disaster response in Balikuda, Cyclone Phailin – the strongest tropical storm
to hit India in more than a decade – slammed into Odisha.
Thankfully, the death toll remained low thanks to an
evacuation effort that saw 900,0000 Odisha residents moved into emergency
shelters. But the massive storm has caused widespread flooding, destroyed crops
and made more
than a half a million people homeless.
In Balikuda, the lessons learned from the cyclone in 1999
combined with NGO support helped the villagers respond. Suresh Bisoyi, the
director of field operations for RCDC, told me, "The village disaster reduction
task force worked well and the mock-drills and training were used. Although we
were a little low on resources and some people refused to evacuate their homes,
people came together to deal with Phailin."
Now the hard work to rebuild homes and livelihoods is
beginning in Balikuda. And if our session helps that hard work to be more
effective and responsive to the villagers' needs, it'll be worth it.