These projects examined the ways in which residents of the Southwest are vulnerable to climate variability. The region's dry, extreme, and highly variable climate is a major factor shaping ecological and socioeconomic processes. Here, water is a scarce and valuable resource that is directly impacted by climate variability. The Southwest is one of the fastest growing regions in the country and its rate of growth is expected to continue to remain high. Accelerated development and urbanization translates into increased competition for water resources among urban areas, industry and agriculture. These factors underscore the need to understand how the Southwest is affected by climate variability and how vulnerabilities may be reduced from improved climate forecasts. Understanding past and current human vulnerabilities and adaptations is the first step towards addressing more drastic future changes.
Vulnerability has two central components. The first refers to susceptibility to negative socioeconomic impacts of climate variability; the more severe the impacts, the greater the degree of vulnerability. The second refers to the degree of recoverability from severe climatic events. The less vulnerable system has the capability of recovering faster and of adjusting so that future vulnerability to similar climatic events is lowered. Vulnerability often varies between groups; we examine sectoral differences (e.g. among agriculturists and ranchers) as well as differences between ethnic groups. This helps to explain how and why some groups in society are more vulnerable to damage from climate variability.
To begin the community assessments we reviewed the relevant literature and secondary sources. This included the systematic compilation of existing climate, hydrological, demographic, and economic data. In the first phase of our field research we used a "rapid ethnographic assessment" technique. It was initiated through a series of concentrated site visits by the research team to conduct open-ended interviews with officials and representatives of the community. Snowball sampling techniques were used to identify potential informants representing key economic and public service sectors. In-depth interviews were conducted with representative stakeholders. These were semi structured and covered topics that included the stakeholders' occupational history, household economic profile, schedule of yearly activities as they relate to climate, perceptions of climate change and use of climate forecasting. We also conducted focus group discussions and gather oral histories to document the process of climate buffering. The second phase of our research referred to the creation of community/CLIMAS partnerships through climate forecast meetings with stakeholders and representatives of the climatology and hydrology components of the project. Once we understood the range of vulnerabilities based on our community case studies, we proceeded to the third phase our assessment work. This consisted of defining a set of critical indicators to characterize community vulnerability. These formed the basis for the creation of a GIS-based vulnerability database and map that allows classification of vulnerability by geographical area across the Southwestern region.
The Middle San Pedro River Valley is an example of the significant shift towards development and urbanization that many rural towns are experiencing throughout the Southwest. In this valley, communities are struggling to stay afloat as they undergo a transition from dependence on primary industries (agriculture and ranching) to an economy fueled by services, tourism, and retirement.
CLIMAS researchers’ work in this valley revealed the potential dangers of ignoring climate in a rapidly growing, semi-arid environment. While surface and groundwater availability represents one of the primary constraints to human livelihood sustainability, technology and social organization have buffered most livelihoods in such a way that residents perceive themselves as
largely unaffected by climate extremes (Finan 2000). This case study identified farmers and migrant workers as stakeholders and agriculture as a sector whose climate information needs differ substantially from those of ranchers.
For more information about this case study, please download the full report (pdf): An Assessment of Climate Vulnerability in the Middle San Pedro River.
The Sulphur Springs Valley is a region of farming and ranching communities dependent on groundwater for irrigation. In-depth interviews with a wide range of small-scale agriculturists and migrant labor revealed a community of stakeholders highly vulnerable to climate variability.
The researchers also have documented that considerable diversity exists with regard to people's concerns with climate variability.
For example, some vegetable growers may welcome a summer drought because this allows them to control, by irrigation, the amount of water desired. Yet consecutive years of drought can be devastating. Increased reliance on groundwater irrigation can lead to a decline in aquifer levels and a substantial increase in the costs of pumping. For many, this combination of stresses has
resulted in bankruptcy and the abandonment of agriculture. For others, it has led to the development and adoption of more water-efficient irrigation systems.
For more information, please download the full report (pdf): Vulnerability to Climate Variability in the Farming Sector.
The Upper Gila River Valley (UGRV), a largely agricultural area in southeastern Arizona, is highly dependent on surface water from the upper Gila River and its watershed. The research conducted in the UGRV primarily focused on two stakeholder groups: the San Carlos Apache Tribe and Anglo farmers and ranchers of the Safford Valley.
Resource-dependent livelihoods on the San Carlos Apache reservation include forestry and firefighting; cattle ranching; sale of hunting, fishing, and boating licenses; and backcountry and lake recreation. The research details the history of these reservation livelihoods, their current status, and the impacts of the drought on each livelihood. Vulnerabilities include bark beetle damage and higher fire risk in reservation forests; loss of forage species on the range, resulting in forced sale of cattle; and loss of lake recreation income as reservoir levels decline. Moreover, vulnerability to climate impacts overlays and magnifies vulnerabilities that are linked to historic events, institutional structures such as water rights, and political and sociocultural factors on the reservation.
In the Safford Valley, the main crop is cotton, grown along the Gila River. Ranchers graze their cattle on small parcels of private land and scattered large federal and state grazing allotments. This predominantly Anglo community has generally greater access to financial resources and makes more use of government programs than the reservation does. While temperature is the primary concern of the cotton farmers, ranchers need information about both timing and quantity of precipitation that affects forage on their ranges. Cotton farmers also need localized forecasts of humidity and precipitation in addition to heat units to better manage their planting, crop management, and harvesting activities. Because the region is known for spotty rains, the preference is for information to be as localized and small scale as possible.
By far the greatest vulnerability for both the San Carlos Apache Reservation and the Safford Valley is linked to the Gila River. Both communities rely on river water supplemented with groundwater. Access to Gila River water is strictly defined and hotly contested. The impacts of water allocation settlements that were based upon river flow during unusually wet years resound today, as the river has rarely provided the full apportionment to UGRV farmers, or left water of sufficient quality or quantity to meet the Tribe’s needs. As both groups of users seek to assert their water rights and make a living, drought, and even dry conditions under normal variability, exacerbates the conflict.
The CLIMAS findings in the Upper Gila River Valley are consistent with those reported for the Sulphur Springs Valley (Vásquez-León et al., 2003); the role of climate and the potential for climate information to make a difference to these stakeholders are bound up in a much wider social, cultural, and institutional context. In a region where demand for water has been growing since the earliest Anglo-American settlement, water allocation is a key factor that impacts stakeholder vulnerability to climate. Reliable long-term forecasts of seasonal precipitation and temperatures could make a significant contribution to maintaining rural, resource-dependent livelihoods in an inherently challenging environment.
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