Women in a flood-prone region of India are the key to protecting drinking-water wells for their families and neighbors, but they need stronger voices – literally, figuratively and politically – to bring solutions to their communities, according to University of Virginia climate researchers.
With a $1.5 million grant, UVA’s Environmental Institute is studying how to empower women already elected to local offices in Bihar, India, to tackle a climate-change problem that threatens the lives and health of families, including the novel solution of voice training.
It’s part of a pair of grants – $3 million in total, supporting UVA’s Grand Challenges Research Initiative – that the Environmental Institute is sending to a pair of communities 8,000 miles apart.
The goal of this inaugural phase of the “Climate Collaboratives” program is to gather UVA experts from several disciplines to work directly with community members on strategies to adapt to climate change and to improve their futures. The focus for now will be on research to learn what approaches could lead to long-term resilience as the climate, and their communities, continue to change.
“Grand Challenges are meant to support the full scope of research, from basic research to team science to implementation and adoption by stakeholders,” said Megan Barnett, vice provost for academic initiatives. “The Climate Collaborative projects are a great illustration of this type of effort. They will generate discoveries, and also put those discoveries, and the tools to use them, in the hands of local communities.”
One of those communities is closer to home. UVA researchers will examine how the Appalachian region – still adjusting to the diminishment of coal mining as an economic driver – might thrive if it embraces renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
In places like Russell County, tucked into the tip of Virginia’s southwest corner, the region is trying to map a future that isn’t reliant on fossil fuels. County leaders, with federal help, are reclaiming abandoned coal mines and other areas littered with coal detritus to create an industrial development site. And they are also working with the Environmental Institute to explore how a clean-energy revolution could bolster the region’s economy, improve the health of its residents and position Appalachia for a sustainable future.
“I understand the importance of building community resilience,” said Lou Wallace, co-founder of the community nonprofit St. Paul Tomorrow and the chair of the Russell County Board of Supervisors. “We are excited about this project and look forward to engaging with all of the strategic partners involved in this initiative.”
Shannon R. Blevins, vice chancellor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, said places like Russell County could be on the cusp of a complete reimagining.
“The communities of Southwest Virginia have tremendous potential and opportunities ahead of them,” she said. “We look forward to working with community leaders and strategic partners to design strategies to build resiliency and address complex challenges that threaten the vibrancy of our communities.”
In India, the problem isn’t a flagging fossil fuel economy, but increasingly damaging flooding made worse by a changing climate. Yearly monsoon-season flooding in the Bihar area has grown increasingly dire. Rivers that overrun their banks routinely inundate hand pumps or contaminate drinking water.
Women there bear the brunt of the problem because they are the ones most often tasked with taking care of families and seeking aid after natural disasters. And because women are the most affected, they have an incentive to spearhead change, UVA researchers say. Bolstering the authority of women elected to office in the flood-ravaged region could lead to better outcomes, like moving drinking-water wells out of flood zones.
But many of the region’s elected women lack confidence in their voices, and their tone and pitch is not assertive, according to UVA professor Sheetal Sekhri. With the help of the UVA’s Department of Music, UVA researchers will see if voice training, along with a host of other supports, will help women more effectively advocate for their communities’ needs.
“Elected women representatives have a unique perspective on these circumstances that may lead to impactful, long-term solutions and infrastructure investments,” Sekhri said.
This kind of work in small communities could usher in big changes, Karen McGlathery, director of UVA’s Environmental Institute, said.
“Long-term solutions to climate challenges are more likely to be impactful, sustainable and equitable if community members have a voice in the process,” McGlathery said. “Through these new Climate Collaboratives, UVA catalyzes a research model where community members are fully integrated in the questions and outcomes from the start. We have seen positive benefits from this approach very clearly with our climate equity project on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where research has been improved by what we learn from our community leaders.”
For the Appalachia project, the UVA research team will be led by Christine Mahoney from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The team will include Bevin Etienne from the McIntire School of Commerce, Eric Loth and Julianne Quinn from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, William Shobe from the Weldon Cooper Center, Tanya Denckla Cobb from UVA’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation and Blevins from UVA Wise.
Sekhri will lead the India project team, working with Julianne Quinn and Venkat Lakshmi from the Engineering School, and Nomi Dave from the Music Department. The team will collaborate with external partners including World Bank, Paris School of Economics, French National Center for Scientific Research, Center for Catalyzing Change in India, Indian Institute of Technology and Megh Pyne Abhiyan in India.
The two Climate Collaboratives are scheduled to be sustained for up to four years.
“The institute is honored to steward these on behalf of UVA and the Grand Challenges Research Initiative, and we look forward to catalyzing more Climate Collaboratives in the future,” McGlathery said. “Over time, this approach will provide place-based infrastructure for multidisciplinary research and a replicable model for producing knowledge and helping communities address climate mitigation and adaptation.
“This is just the beginning.”