Coping with El Niño in Tanzania: Differentiated local impacts and household-level responses

The impacts of El Niño are most serious in poor rural parts of the world, where households decisions about how to respond are vital if they are to minimise the harm they suffer. In this project, we examine how Wildlife Management Areas – a specific form of community-based natural resource management institution – affect the ability of local communities to respond to El Niño.

Photo credit: Aidan Keane

Key facts

Period: May 2016-October 2017

Funder: National Environment Research Council (NERC) & the Department for International Development (DFiD)

Researchers: Aidan Keane, Iain McNichol, Christine Noe, Casey Ryan, Katherine Homewood

Collaborators: University of Dar Es Salaam, University College London

Project Overview

El Niño is a climatic phenomenon linked to warming of the ocean surface in the eastern Pacific that causes unusual weather patterns across many parts of the tropics and further afield. In Tanzania, El Niño events typically lead to heavier rain and flooding in northern parts of the country while southern parts experience less rainfall than normal. These environmental changes can have severe consequences for the livelihoods of local people, leading to crop failure and outbreaks of disease affecting humans and livestock and causing significant hardship and loss of life. “Natural” disasters such as these arise when society fails to respond adequately to changes in the environment, but the role human behaviour plays in shaping the outcomes of environmental change is complex and poorly understood.

Households decisions about how to respond to an El Niño are vital if they are to minimise the harm they suffer

The impacts of El Niño are most serious in poor rural parts of the world, where households decisions about how to respond are vital if they are to minimise the harm they suffer. These decisions commonly involve changes to their livelihood activities, selling property or increasing their use of natural resources and are often referred to as coping strategies. The set of possible coping strategies a household can use depends upon the resources they can call upon, and these can in turn be affected by their environment and the existence of relevant institutions. Together these three factors – household level differences and institutional and environmental context – are important determinants of local scale impacts of environmental shocks.

In this project, we examine how Wildlife Management Areas – a specific form of community-based natural resource management institution – affect the ability of local communities to respond to El Niño. In theory WMAs could lessen El Niño’s impacts if they improve the condition or availability of natural resources at key times, or lessen conflict. However, they could also have a negative effect if they impose restrictions on natural resource use that reduce the set of coping strategies a household can call on.

We will investigate this interaction using survey data collected from more than 1,200 households across Tanzania, comparing El Niño’s impacts in the differing environments of the north and the south and in areas with and without WMAs. In addition, we will examine whether impacts vary between different types of individuals or households within a community (e.g. men and women, richer and poorer households, households relying more or less on natural resources). Our results will provide valuable new insights into the reasons why some households and communities are more seriously affected by environmental change and help communities to become more resilient in the future.