Credit: Oxfam.

Assessing vulnerability to prioritise interventions – lessons from a South Caucasus village

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We live in an uncertain world; here Daniel Morchain describes an approach to vulnerability and impact assessment he recently used in Armenia in order to reduce uncertainty and make our interventions as effective as possible.

Credit: Oxfam.

Credit: Oxfam.

Remember that classic line by Forrest Gump, “my mama always said life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”? That’s what I was thinking about as a group of Oxfam staff members met with community representatives and regional experts in the village of Aknaghbyur (population: 550) in the northeast of Armenia to try to assess the vulnerability of the community to climate- and non-climate-related impacts.

In our line of work, uncertainty is bad news not only for beneficiaries… but also for practitioners…
Of course, the problem with Forrest’s worldview is that we can’t always afford to live with high levels of uncertainty. In our line of work, uncertainty is bad news not only for beneficiaries, whose livelihoods and food security are directly impacted, but also for practitioners, as we are ethically and professionally accountable for using resources efficiently and delivering results.

So, with this in mind, our goal in Aknaghbyur was to try to reduce uncertainty through analysis.

We examined the main climatic, economic and political threats to livelihoods and explored which activities and crops yielded the best results, so that we could see which we should do more of, which we should do less of and even which to discontinue for the time being.

We hoped that this analysis would help us to better prioritise our interventions and allocate resources in order to tackle poverty more effectively.

The community’s main livelihood activities are the trading of greenhouse-grown vegetables, as well as figs and cornelian cherry. Oxfam has initiated a number of other projects in Aknaghbyur village, namely the establishment of an agricultural cooperative, as well as a cold storage centre for fruit and vegetables and the provision of provided 0% loans for member of the farming cooperatives.

After three days of preparatory work and two days of field work with experts and community members, the analysis revealed that the changing climate is partly to blame for the increasing uncertainty faced by families in Aknaghbyur. Changing climatic conditions include: frost occurring ‘out of season’ and damaging fig and cornelian cherry yields; heavy hailstorms harming vegetable production and unpredictable rain patterns and water scarcity that means that less fodder is available for cattle, which in turn reduces dairy and meat yields.

The analysis also revealed that climate change is not the end of the story. These impacts combine with other factors that jeopardise the well-being of village residents, such as an improving but still imperfect governance system, where loans and agricultural inputs can be very hard to access. Also, an inefficient and costly irrigation system forces  smallholder farmers to rely on rain-fed agriculture yields, and restricts them to subsistence agriculture grown in the small plots in front of their homes.

Our vulnerability assessment was produced using a methodology developed in the context of the Gendered Enterprise and Markets initiative, and it remains a work in progress. One of the challenges we have faced in the process is to produce a locally-relevant, robust analysis that does not require too much time or too many resources to implement.

Basically, the assessment identifies those activities or crops that are most vulnerable to a specific climate hazard or political/social/economic/governance-related issue.

Based on that analysis, impact chains are developed which firstly produce a holistic understanding of the consequences of a hazard or an issue, and consequently identify and prioritise adaptation interventions. This exercise has allowed us to do two things:

Single out activities and crops that require adaptation interventions to continue sustaining food security and livelihoods (as well as those with a low vulnerability score, where an intensification of that activity may be worth considering)

Make the identification of adaptation measures more targeted and effective, as time is dedicated only to those areas that require attention more urgently from an impact, livelihood relevance, or programmatic perspective.

To illustrate, figs, one of the community’s most important income generators, are highly vulnerable to seasonal frost (this may be more or less obvious) but not to hailstorms, unlike persimmon (this is a little bit less obvious). And, despite their perishability, it is easier for the community to introduce them to markets than some of the vegetables produced in greenhouses (perhaps even less obvious still). But, while drought and expensive access to irrigation make fig yields uncertain, this does not affect greenhouse production – obvious or not, this leads to a disaggregated analysis that later supports a joint consideration of impacts and the identification of and prioritisation of adaptation interventions.

Future discussions with the group will aim to find how measures can be designed to further reduce risk and enhance long term adaptive capacity throughout the community. Ultimately, in building the tool, we intend to address the different dimensions of resilience that shape Oxfam’s programming at the country level and beyond.

For the moment, while we continue our work with the community in Aknaghbyur – which includes the construction of greenhouses with drip irrigation technology, investigation of new ways to protect the fig yields (an important cash crop) from seasonal frost, consideration of ways to implement water harvesting solutions, and advocacy work – this vulnerability and impact analysis has allowed us to more confidently select the areas, activities and groups where we should dedicate our efforts.

Returning to Forrest Gump’s chocolate, our vulnerability analysis has allowed us to be more certain about what we’re ‘gonna get’ before we take a bite.

Daniel Morchain

Daniel Morchain

Daniel is Global Adviser on Climate Change Adaptation at Oxfam GB and works on a number of initiatives around climate change adaptation, as well as gender justice, such as the Gendered Enterprise and Markets (GEM) initiative. worked with local authorities, and smallholder farmers in developing and implementing strategies to adapt to climate change and to increase resilience.