If you are a farmer in India or in Bangladesh, you sow at the onset of the wet season. The timing is important: rains are followed by drought, so if you miss the right time to seed, you likely won’t have much to harvest.

But rains don’t come on time anymore, and neither do the droughts. When it rains it pours; when the dry season comes, the heat burns the crops and sears the soil. Subsistence farmers must adapt to this changing climate to survive – but what approach is best?

A recent study provides some answers by identifying 36 key indicators of adaptive capacity. The result is a comprehensive look at why some farmers handle the effects of climate change better than others and where to invest to make the biggest difference.

“We need to get to know the risks and uncertainties and acknowledge that ‘more of the same’ is not enough to avoid costly, unsustainable impacts,” said SEI Senior Research Fellow Clemens Grünbühel, a co-author of the study in the Climate and Development Journal.

On a micro level, every farmer has distinct capacity, which is conditioned by the resources they control, their level of skill and experience, their health, their access to market, the extent of their social network, and even by their non-farming activities.

Working with these individual parameters can improve farmers’ capacity to adapt. But how can one make sense of multiple individual parameters of billions of people in over a dozen of countries?

To answer this question, Grünbühel and his co-authors used the elements of the sustainable livelihoods framework, working with 600 participants in villages across South and Southeast Asia.

Unlike the traditional approach to poverty reduction that only looks at income and productivity, the sustainable livelihoods framework considers a broader set of components. This includes five “capitals”: human, social, natural, physical and financial. For the study, they are defined as follows:

  • Human capital includes education, knowledge, skills, experience and health.
  • Social capital contains farmer networks, village groups, links with local authorities and access to markets.
  • Natural capital includes land ownership, as well as soil and water resources.
  • Physical capital is represented by agricultural equipment, irrigation, roads and community buildings.
  • Financial capital includes access to credit, savings and income from other sources.

Grünbühel and his colleagues used these components during their interviews and discussions with farmers in India, Bangladesh, Laos and Cambodia and identified 36 key indicators of adaptive capacity.

It is important to acknowledge that no one capital is more important than another. On the contrary, a farmer usually needs one or more to leverage another. For instance, financial perks will not be very useful if you don’t have any skills and labour (human capital); similarly, there is no use in supplying agricultural equipment to farmers with no land.

A practical application of this approach verified that farmers have different potentials to adapt: some people have more extensive social networks, others are better in farming, some villages are closer to main roads, and others have stronger land rights.

“You wouldn’t want to treat all farmers as one. Rather you would want to find out which groups need what type of support,” Grünbühel explained.

Indeed, the study’s recommendations go far beyond the one-size-fits-all approach. Using indicators of adaptive capacity, one can see which of the capitals needs the most work and can then design interventions specific to the livelihood needs of a certain community.

The authors underscore that climate adaption is not only about supplying technological improvements. Boosting adaptive capacity of smallholder rural households has to involve a range of strategies, including support for farmer groups, novel information networks, better access to markets and (fair) value chains, and land redistribution, as well as improved financial and economic management, and credit options.

In this sense, the study exposes a deeper layer of the climate adaptation challenge, which is both profound and intimidating. In short: climate adaptation must be carried out at all levels.

“Clearly, we are talking about social change. While technologies might help, we must find new approaches to sustainable livelihoods,” Grünbühel said. “The solutions we suggest are about supporting adaptive capacity of humans, a species that has proven highly adaptable to a huge range of external drivers over millennia.”

More information

Interested in finding out more? Read the research article “Constraints to the capacity of smallholder farming households to adapt to climate change in South and Southeast Asia” in Climate and Development Journal.

Find out more about the value of creating a typology of adaptive capacity for farming households in this research article.

This feature story was produced in collaboration with the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative, SIANI.