Protecting the most vulnerable from the impact of climate change is our moral responsibility

The increase in severity and occurrence of natural disasters such as hurricanes, storms and floods has affected vulnerable communities the most.

December 06, 2021 by Divy Bhagia
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5 minutes read
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Every member of this tribal family is involved in tilling the landlord’s farm in return for a quarter of the produce, which barely lasts them a few months. Credit: Divy Bhagia
Climate change has led to irregular rain patterns, which makes farming possible only four months a year. Every member of this tribal family is involved in tilling the landlord’s farm in return for a quarter of the produce, which barely lasts them a few months.
Credit: Divy Bhagia

For me the term "climate change" has always been strongly associated with visuals. However, the visuals that occurred to me were those of realities farther away from home. Like a polar bear standing on the last piece of ice or the bleached coral of the Great Barrier Reef, caused by rising sea temperatures.

I never realized how people around me were being affected—until I began working on a photo project to document traditions of tribal communities in India. It felt surreal living with one of the most vulnerable families and witnessing firsthand the effects of climate change on their lives.

Girls from a village in Rajasthan walk to fetch water. Credit: Divy Bhagia
Girls from a village in Rajasthan walk to fetch water.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

While speaking with the local women and girls, I was surprised to learn that no one knew about climate change, yet they are the ones who have to deal with its adversity every day.

A woman from the Rathwa tribe collects mahua flowers. Credit: Divy Bhagia
A woman from the Rathwa tribe collects mahua flowers. Tribal communities like Rathwa use the forest not only as a resource for fulfilling their basic needs but also as a means of their livelihood.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

The majority of the people in the tribes have never attended school, particularly women and girls. Their resilience to climate adversities and the ability to survive on the bare minimum was inspiring.

Rupa, 93, from the Tadvi community. Credit: Divy Bhagia
Rupa, 93, from the Tadvi community lives alone on top of a hill without any electricity. She uses cotton stems to build the walls of her home.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

“This season I was unable to harvest a lot. I was busy fixing the roof of my house, which got damaged because of unseasonal rain,” says Rupa, a 93-year-old farmer, who lives alone on top of a hill in the tribal pockets of Gujarat.

Rupa rests to catch a breath as she climbs to her house at the top of a hill. Credit: Divy Bhagia
Rupa rests to catch a breath as she climbs to her house at the top of a hill. With a consumption of 5 liters of water a day, this is a daily routine she has to follow to survive.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

Rupa’s income is restricted to a monthly pension of 800 rupees (approx. USD 11) provided by the government and the little she makes from selling her vegetable produce. Water is a luxury, and she has to go all the way to the bottom of the hill each day to fetch water.

“Ten to 15 years ago, farming was much better. In an area like this, where one cannot farm except for in the monsoon, it is very important for the rains to come on time.”

Rupa

Each year, the severity of storms, rains, droughts and other calamities were noticeably becoming worse.

While the term “climate change” is unheard of, these tribal women and girls have been more heavily impacted compared to men, as social norms require them to walk longer distances for water, food and fuel that reduces time for other activities like to be in school.

Credit: Divy Bhagia
(Left) A woman walks on the only road that connects her village to the nearby town in northern Gujarat, India. It is common to see women walking for miles in the heat because of the lack of public transport facilities.
(Right) Young girls dressed in traditional clothing fetch water as boys from the same village pass them by.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

Fewer rains and lower harvests are forcing families to migrate to urban spaces to find jobs. The families are often unable to sustain themselves and are forced to leave their children in the villages.

In such cases, children are taken care of by their grandmothers.

A grandma takes care of her granddaughter. Credit: Divy Bhagia
A grandma takes care of her granddaughter because the girl’s parents migrated to the city in search of jobs.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

However, it is not uncommon for migrant families to move with their children. These children often miss out on education and healthcare and live in unhygienic and crowded spaces. To many, the joys of childhood are only a distant dream.

Lakshmi sits outside her makeshift house on a street in Chandisar. Credit: Divy Bhagia
Lakshmi sits outside her makeshift house on a street in Chandisar, feeding her child in the hot sun. As migrant laborers, their work includes digging roads and laying pipelines.
Credit:
Divy Bhagia

UNICEF South Asia’s report “Youth Perspectives on Climate Change and Education in India” helps paint a wider picture. Eighty percent of respondents stated that their education was affected by climate change, out of which 13% said their journey to school was impacted and 12% reported their families’ ability to afford schooling was a challenge.

What’s more intriguing is that 84% expressed interest in addressing climate change, if the necessary support is made available. Such data indicate the dire need to empower those ready for change.

There is also a lot we can learn from the traditional knowledge of these communities. The onus to protect the most vulnerable from the adversities of climate change is our collective moral responsibility.

The fight against climate change does not end with raising awareness. It is also about adaptation.

In terms of the most empowering tools to do this, equitable access to education undeniably makes it to the top of the list. Education gives people the knowledge and tools they need not only to adapt to the impacts of climate change but also to address the factors that cause it.

This kind of education will have to strive to be comprehensive and holistic, covering the spectrum from advocacy for better policy making to grassroots implementation and management.

It will need to be backed by exhaustive research aimed at analyzing the real gaps in the needs of the most vulnerable. It will have to be unconventionally brave such that there is no shying away from redefining the purpose and objectives of education, as and when need be. Then, and only then, will we truly be able to achieve the dream of an equitable world.

Today, those who've contributed the least to climate change are being hit the hardest.

Ultimately, all of us will feel the impact. Reversing the course of climate change will not be easy. Today is the time for bold unprecedented action. Let’s leave no one behind.

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Climate change
South Asia: India

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