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Women put "climate change Ground Zero" in the picture

The women's photos show conditions such as unpaved, mud roads that flood during monsoons. Photo by Shibani Das.

In an area in India known as “climate change ground zero,” a group of women are using photography to document their living conditions—and finding that their work is leading both to greater visibility and to change.

The low-lying Sundarbans delta region, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most visible victims of the ravages of climate change in the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in 2007 that globally it will be areas like the Sundarbans that will bear the brunt of climate risks caused by sea level rise and salt-water intrusion into farmable land and underground aquifers. Sea levels in this area are rising at twice the global average, submerging islands and destroying homes and livelihoods.

Women and children are especially at risk. Loss of farmable land has caused men to migrate in search of work. The workload on women has increased—they have to look after the fields, manage the households, and care for family members. This often limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to factors like sudden weather-related natural disasters. 

The photo project has enabled the women in the Sundarbans to tell the stories of their lives in their villages, threatened by the ever-present dangers of climate change. In three areas—Patharpratima, Namkhana, and Kultali—80 women working in fields, collecting honey, or catching fish were given cameras under a research project conducted by the Department for International Development (a UK antipoverty agency), supported by Future Health Systems (an NGO working to improve health care for poor people), and implemented by the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR).

A major issue in the region is access to health care. There are no hospitals or doctors on most of the islands, and getting to the nearest clinic means long, often risky journeys over flooded fields, roads, and rivers. “Public health access has been weak in this area,” says Professor Barun Kanjilal of IIHMR. “Primary health centers have no doctors or medicines. The first contact for most people is the rural medical practitioner.”

Before the project started, none of the women had ever used a camera. After being guided through the process, the women, who averaged 35 years old and had children aged 0 to 6 years, were asked to take photographs of factors that affected their children’s health. The photographers—from across educational and livelihood strata—went on to create a personal body of work that speaks volumes about living with the effects of climate change.

The series of images shot by the women movingly illustrate problems they face regarding shelter, malnutrition, livelihoods, access to health care, hygiene and sanitation, and climate change. The accompanying texts deepen the poignancy.

Bandana Bera of Namkhana took a photo of an old man being carried in a makeshift carrier fashioned out of a fishing net. “There are simply no roads in this part of the village,” says the caption. “To transport ailing people—pregnant mothers, sick children, the old and infirm—we use an improvised version of the duli (makeshift palanquin) to get them to the nearby health facility. At night, we generally do not risk the travel.”

A photo taken by Supriya Halder of Kultali shows a teenage mother holding an underweight child, highlighting an important contributing factor to malnutrition in the Sundarbans, where girls are sometimes married off early so that there are fewer mouths to feed.

Says the description of another photo of a shut clinic: “We do not have any doctors in the vicinity, not even a quack. In case our children become ill, we either take recourse to home remedies or take them to a traditional healer.”

The caption of a photo of two young children alone in a mud hut says: “I leave my younger child with the older one. I know it is very risky, but we have to sustain [ourselves].”

“We left fully charged cameras with them for 15 days,” says Shibaji Bose, principal investigator of the project. “There were eight to ten women from each village. We told them to shoot factors they feel affect their children’s health. They came up with the social determinants.”

The IIHMR team made periodic trips to show the women the images they had clicked. At one point, they had to stop the project when many of the women lost their homes due to seasonal floods and had to rebuild. But the women persevered, telling the IIHMR team that they would continue when the rains receded and winter arrived. “They have so much resilience—living through cyclones, floods, disease, poverty,” says Kanjilal. “Through the project, we wanted to figure out how to improve their resiliency.”

The images are now being used to better living conditions for the women and their families. They were shown at a press conference to local policy makers in September 2015. Since then, the women have had three meetings at the gram panchayat (local governance) level, and a state-level one—where they have presented their work to ministers, academicians, bureaucrats, and civil society organizations. One immediate result has been the paving of the muddy road that the women had photographed.

The photos have been released in the form of a booklet, “Climate Health and Resilience: A Photovoice Exploration in the Indian Sundarbans,” and serve as visual evidence of the plight of isolated and vulnerable communities in Sundarbans.

Women in Sundarbans have been largely invisible in the media in terms of the problems they are facing as well as the ways they are coping. The photo project has helped build a rapport between the women and local authorities. They say they have a voice now. They have formed a collective, and are bringing the voice of the community to decision makers. “The key impact of the project till now has been the creation of an enabling environment to generate discussion on health system issues,” says Kanjilal, “particularly the health of children.”

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