It has long been known that acute environmental events such as flooding or drought can lead to post-traumatic stress and related issues such as anxiety and depression. Yet what about more incremental shifts in the climate including higher seasonal average temperatures or shifts in the timing and distribution of rainfall, how will these play out in terms of shaping human wellbeing and mental health? This is one of the new frontiers of research into understanding the human response to climate change: what impact is climate change likely to have on human wellbeing and mental health? As with much of the global evidence base on these issues, the challenge is that those populations that are most vulnerable to climate change, who invariably live in the Global South, are often those we know the least about. This is because lots of the standard measures for assessing wellbeing have been developed in Western contexts and largely not validated for cross-culture use. This poses difficulties for those wishing to assess and evaluate how environmental changes impact these important aspects of human life, which is a necessary step for developing and implementing climate change adaptations that truly do build resilient citizens and communities.

Working on this topic, Dr Paul Hutchings, Lecturer in the Cranfield Water Science Institute, is leading a DFID and ESRC research project examining the relationship between water security and wellbeing within pastoralist populations in the Afar region of Ethiopia. Pastoralists – populations that rely on their livestock for subsistence and often live in a nomadic way – number around 200 million worldwide and 12 million in Ethiopia. Their very way of life has developed in the context of resource scarcity with mobility a key strategy to overcome shortages of key resources, in particular, water and grazing. Yet climate change is leading to more severe droughts and higher average temperate in many of the pastoralist heartlands, both in Ethiopia and the broader Horn of Africa. This means that the pastoralist mobility associated resilience strategies are increasingly stressed leading to detrimental impacts on the health and wellbeing of their communities.

Through this research project the team from Cranfield University, the International Water Management Institute, IRC and Oxfam have developed a novel way to assess how water security shapes wellbeing among Afar pastoralists. The approach focuses on an important aspect of wellbeing – what we term emotional wellbeing – and uses targeted questioning that seeks to elicit emotional responses to different aspects of water use and access within communities. The approach works because it is developed inductively building on models and discourses of wellbeing constructed from the community rather than imported from other cultural contexts. The application of the approach within the study has shown how strongly seasonality affects wellbeing within pastoralist communities and the acute emotional distress caused by disruption to water sources or water shortages. Whilst, such factors are somewhat predictable, the tool has value at a programme level in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector for assessing the impact of specific projects on populations especially as this can be conducted at an individual level, rather than a household scale. This allows us to compare the differences between men and women as well as detect factors not well captured by conventional indicators. More broadly, the research approach has relevance for assessing the impact of environmental factors on wellbeing for populations not catered for by standard techniques. Here, the work is contributing to work at the intersection of water management, development studies and cross-cultural psychology that is seeking to answer those big questions about how changes in climate may shape wellbeing by providing a methodological approach for studying these matters in culturally-diverse settings.