Reflections on research ethics in DECCMA

by Sumana Banerjee, DECCMA India coordinator

During the past 4.75 years, DECCMA created plenty of opportunities for interaction with communities. When interacting with communities, the question of ethics comes into the minds of researchers and funders.

When researchers from universities in the UK visited delta communities in India, they had detailed participant information sheets, consent forms, and debriefing notes as a part of their universities’ ethical requirements to conduct interviews with communities. Most Indian universities do not have such processes in place. For us in Jadavpur University, the only ethical consideration form available is used by the Department of Pharmacy for clinical trials. This does not mean that we did not follow any ethical processes while interacting with communities. We had designed simplified forms to cover all bases for ethics, such as anonymity of participants, non-disclosure of their personal details, freedom to withdraw from the interview at any point, contact persons in case they have queries or requests after the interviews etc. and we also resorted to recording verbal consent at times. Now the difference in institutional processes put me in a reflective mood.

Sumana and Jadavpur University researchers conducting fieldwork with students from the University of Southampton

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Having detailed paperwork as proof of following the guidelines and getting signed consent from participants is indeed a great process. However, based on our experience of working with delta communities in India (West Bengal and Odisha), we faced some practical challenges while executing this process, two of which are outlined below along with the solutions we used:

Contact Details:

Challenge – Mentioning contact details of researchers and their supervisors based in the UK is mandatory but this will have no real meaning for the communities as they won’t obviously email (!) nor have the resources to converse with them if they have questions.

Solution – Include contact details of the organisation closest to the participants who are involved in this research, alongside the mandatory mention of the UK researchers and supervisors.

Signed Consent:

Challenge – The research team explains every detail about the purpose of their visit but there are instances when the respondent feels nervous to sign a paper since the fear of “losing something” lurks in their minds. Also, by handing a pen to an illiterate person to sign we end up reinforcing hierarchies.

Solution – It is important to make it clear that no harm would be brought upon them by consenting to participate by sharing how the researcher does not collect their personal details (government ID numbers etc.) and how the researcher is also bound to maintain the anonymity of the respondents. Handing out a stamp pad along with a pen is often a better idea and gives the respondent the comfort of choosing the appropriate tool without them having to explicitly announce if they are literate or illiterate.

Ethics is not limited to these processes alone. It is the duty of any person who interacts with communities for their work, to keep in mind the basics of moral human behaviour. Focus on vulnerable communities at times leads to teams being extractive and manipulative in their interactions. Staging a scene for a photograph interrupting the daily schedule of a respondent, or coaxing them to say what one wants to hear to support already formed ideas are unethical. Research teams should avoid such practices at any cost and if the team is responsible for any other actor who resorts to such practices, it should immediately be discouraged. These actions not only hamper the trust built with the community, but also reduce the possibilities of fruitful interactions in the future.

As research teams and most importantly as human beings, it is our responsibility to try and reduce the vulnerabilities of communities we work with and not reinforce differences. To conclude my reflections, I share the following quote where the poet sums it up beautifully –

“By plucking her petals you do not gather the beauty of the flower.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, Stray Birds

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New DECCMA brief “Climate change and the economic future of deltas in Africa and Asia”

The DECCMA Economics team have released a new policy brief “Climate change and the economic future of deltas in Africa and Asia“.  The policy brief is led by the team from the Basque Centre for Climate Change, and summarises some of the key findings on the current and future economic status of deltas, taking into account climate change, and distills information from papers published in the peer-reviewed literature (including “The socioeconomic future of deltas in a changing environment” by Arto et al).

The brief highlights how climate change has the potential to reduce GDP per capita by 8.5-14.5% in the deltas, through impacts on infrastructure, agriculture and fisheries. Traditional adaptation options, such as embankments and protection and restoration of mangroves, could only reduce these effects by up to 40-50%, thus minimising but not ruling out negative impacts.

DECCMA Ghana success with proposal “Empowering women and transforming gender relations in the Volta delta, Ghana”

The DECCMA Ghana team has been successful in its proposal “Empowering women and transforming gender relations in the Volta delta, Ghana”.  The project will bring together researchers with local and national policy-makers, a leading Ghanaian advocacy NGO, and traditional leaders to build networks and share research findings with the aim of co-producing knowledge that leads to women’s empowerment and transformation of gender relations in Sogakope and Keta in the Volta delta.  In-keeping with the CDKN aim “From knowledge to action in African countries”, the project aims to take forward findings from DECCMA that women in the delta have high labour burdens due to out-migration of men, combined with a land tenure system that does not provide security of tenure.

Houses are submerged by sand in Keta (photo: Katharine Vincent)

The project team, comprising representatives of the University of Ghana, ProLink Ghana, Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Keta Municipality, Hlevie Global Women, the local traditional leadership, and Kulima Integrated Development Solutions will attend a Knowledge Accelerator Lab facilitated by CDKN in April in order to develop a full proposal.

ASSAR launches MOOC on Research for Impact

DECCMA’s sister project in the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions (ASSAR) has launched a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Research for Impact. The MOOC, available on Coursera, is convened by the University of Cape Town and Oxfam GB and comprises three main learning objectives:

  • Understand the key interwoven elements of Research for Impact in the context of development and adaptation research.

  • Identify the suite of activities involved in Research for Impact.

  • Appraise opportunities in your research plan through an Research for Impact lens and identify challenges applying a Research for Impact approach.

    The 15 hour course with flexible deadlines is free to take (with a fee payable if you require a certificate) and includes experiences from the other CARIAA projects, including DECCMA.

DECCMA findings presented to Environment and Natural Resource Sector Working Group in Ghana

This week Professor Kwasi Appeaning-Addo, deputy PI of DECCMA Ghana and now Director of the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies at the University of Ghana, will be presenting key findings on climate change, migration and adaptation in the Volta delta to a meeting of development partners within the Environment and Natural Resources Sector Working Group. The presentation will provide an opportunity to highlight complementarities and where DECCMA research findings can inform adaptation programming in Ghana.

CARIAA releases a series of “novel insights” into climate change, migration, and gender and social equity

Marking the end of the Collaborative Adaptation Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), IDRC has released a series of “novel insights”. These briefs capitalise on thematic learnings across the four CARIAA consortia that have been investigating adaptation in different hotspots – DECCMA in deltas, ASSAR and PRISE in semi-arid regions and economies, and HiAWARE in glacier-fed river basins. The novel insights synthesise findings on migration, gender and social equity, effective adaptation, the impact of a 1.5C increase in global temperature on the different hotspots, and research for impact.


DECCMA Ghana release short film summarising their research findings and impacts

DECCMA Ghana has released a short film that summarises its research activities, findings and impacts from four years of investigation into climate change, migration and adaptation in the Volta delta. In the clip, DECCMA researchers Sam Codjoe, Kwasi Appeaning-Addo, Mumuni Abu and Cynthia Addoquaye-Tagoe, and coordinator Gertrude Owusu, highlight how the project has engaged with stakeholders and built relationships in order to inform policy. Chair of the National Expert Advisory Group, Honourable Clement Humado, also outlines why he accepted the role and how the project has benefited the country.

Exploring the impact of out-migration and how it impacts women’s ability to adapt to weather hazards: key insights from the Indian Bengal Delta

by Lindsay Jane Sian Roberts

The vulnerability of delta environments is increasingly recognised, with a multitude of stressors threatening the lives of communities and re-shaping livelihood decisions. As a vulnerable and marginalised group, women experience this the most acutely.

Migration is recognised as one of three sustainable livelihood strategies, alongside livelihood diversification and agricultural intensification. Within the Indian Bengal delta, men are most likely to migrate with women often left behind to look after the household and livelihoods. There is limited research exploring the impacts of out-migration and the adaptive strategies women undertake. To gain further insight into out-migration and add to my analysis of the DECCMA household survey data, I undertook interviews for my Masters dissertation in the villages of Dulki and Sonagar (the dissertation is available here).

Migration impacts depend on circumstances

The impacts of out-migration depend on the reason and type of the migration – for example whether it was involuntary or voluntary, or permanent or seasonal.  The extent to which women are affected by out-migration depends on their social support networks at home.  For those women with supportive friends, relatives and neighbours, this can counteract the increased loneliness and isolation that results from losing the daily presence of a family member.

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Remittances are an important enabler of proactive adaptive strategies

Remittances play an important role in supporting women when a household member migrates. When remittances are received, they can enable women to employ proactive adaptive strategies to reduce risks of climate change.  Such strategies can include stopping working outside the home and increasing social interaction. However, not all households receive remittances. 

Empowerment and Decision-Making

Women often become the de facto household head during out-migration, and in turn they assume responsibility for decisions that might otherwise be made by their husbands. Findings show that decision making powers are often transferred to the women when men migrate, which had implications for the adaptive strategies they undertake. Participation in self-help groups is an example of a strategy that empowers women to make choices that affect their lives and, in turn the adaptive strategies they undertake.

Overcoming Fieldwork Challenges

Together with my fellow University of Southampton students, I experienced several challenges during fieldwork from weather to undertaking research. These challenges were all overcome with preparation and assistance from the Jadavpur University team. I became close friends with my research assistant translator, who aided my research extensively. She was not only responsive and considerate during interviews, allowing me and the interviewee to engage across two languages, but we had insightful talks about the gender representation within England and India, helping me gain further context for my research. As well as the team, all the delta women were extremely welcoming, inviting and accommodating, which allowed me to conduct 17 interviews during my time in the delta.

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Special issue “Delineating climate change impacts on biophysical conditions in deltas” in Science of the Total Environment

A special issue of Science of the Total Environment on “Delineating climate change impacts on biophysical conditions in deltas” has just been published, edited by DECCMA team members Kwasi Appeaning Adddo, Anisul Haque, Chris Hill, Robert Nicholls, Venkat Raju, Paul Whitehead. The special issue contains the following DECCMA papers:

Arto, I., García-Muros, X. Cazcarro, I., González-Eguino, M., Markandya, A. and Hazra, S. 2019. The socioeconomic future of deltas in a changing environment. Science of the Total Environment 648, 1284-1296.

Dunn, F.E., Nicholls, R.J., Darby, S.E., Cohen, S., Zarfl, C. and Fekete, B.M. 2018. Projections of historical and 21st century fluvial sediment delivery to the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Mahanadi and Volta delta. Science of the Total Environment 642, 105-116.

Hossain, M.A.R., Ahmed, M., Ojea, E. and Fernandes, J.A. 2018. Impacts and responses to environmental change in coastal livelihoods of south-west Bangladesh. Science of the Total Enivronment 637-638, 954-970.

Hossain, M.A.R., Das, I., Genevier, L., Hazra, S., Rahman, M., Barange, M. and Fernandes, J.A. 2018. Biology and fisheries of Hilsa shad in Bay of Bengal. Science of the Total Environment 651(2), 1720-1734.

Janes, T., MacGrath, F., Macadam, I. and Jones, R. 2019. High-resolution climate projections for South Asia to inform climate impacts and adaptation studies in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Mahanadi deltas. Science of the Total Environment 650(1), 1499-1520.

Kebede, A.S., Nicholls, R.J., Allan, A., Arto, I., Cazcarro, I., Hill, C.T., Hutton, C.W., Kay, S., Lázár, A.N., Macadam, I., Fernandes, J.A., Palmer, M., Suckall, N., Tompkins, E.L., Vincent, K. and Whitehead, P.W., 2018. Applying the global RCP-SSP-SPA scenario framework at sub-national scale: A multi-scale and participatory scenario approach. Science of the Total Environment 635, 659-672.

Lauria, V., Das, I., Hazra, S., Cazcarro, I., Arto, I., Kay, S., Ofori-Danson, P., Ahmed, M., Hossain, A.R., Barange, M. and Fernandes, J.A. 2018. Importance of fisheries for food security across three climate change vulnerable deltas. Science of the Total Environment 640-641, 1566-1577.

Li, J., Whitehead, P.G., Appeaning-Addo, K., Amisigo, B., Macadam, I., Janes, T., Crossman, J., Nicholls, R.J., McCartney, M. and Rodda, H.J.E. 2018. Modeling future flows of the Volta River system: Impacts of climate change and socio-economic changes. Science of the Total Environment 637-638, 1069-1080.

Li, J., Whitehead, P.G., Rodda, H., Macadam, I. and Sarkar, S. 2018. Simulating climate change and socio-economic change impacts on flows and water quality in the Mahanadi river system, India. Science of the Total Environment 637-638, 907-917.

Mukhopadhyay, A., Ghosh, P., Chanda, A., Ghosh, A., Ghosh, S., Das, S. Ghosh, T. and Hazra, S. 2018. Threats to coastal communities of Mahanadi delta due to imminent consequences of erosion-Present and near future. Science of the Total Environment 637-638, 717-729.

Pathak, D., Whitehead, P.G., Futter, M.N. and Sinha, R. 2018. Water quality assessment and catchment-scale nutrient flux modeling in the Ramganga River Basin in north India: An application of INCA model. Science of the Total Environment 637-638, 201-215.

Rahman, M., Dustegir, M., Karim, R., Haque, A., Nicholls, R.J., Darby, S.E., Nakagawa, H., Hossain, M., Dunn, F.E. and Akter, M. 2018. Recent sediment flux to the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta system. Science of the Total Environment 643, 1054-1064.

Suckall, N., Tompkins, E.L., Nicholls, R.J., Kebede, A.S., Lázár, A.N., Vincent, K., Allan, A., Chapman, A., Rahman, R., Ghosh, T., Hutton, C. and Mensah, A. 2018. A framework for identifying and selecting long term adaptation policy directions for deltas. Science of the Total Environment 633, 946-957.

Whitehead, P.G., Jin, L., Macadam, I., Janes, T., Sarkar, S., Rodda, H.J.E., Sinha, R. and Nicholls, R.J. 2018. Modelling impacts of climate change and socio-economic change on the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Hooghly and Mahanadi river systems in India and Bangladesh. Science of the Total Environment 636, 1362-1372.

Whitehead, P., Bussi, G., Hossain, M.A., Dolk, M., Das, P., Comber, S., Peters, R., Charles, K.J., Hope, R., and Hossain, R. 2018. Restoring water quality in the polluted Turag-Tongi-Balu river system, Dhaka: Modelling nutrient and total coliform intervention strategies, Science of the Total Environment 633, 946-957.