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On the Brink: Photojournalist Arati Kumar-Rao investigates the devastating impacts of climate change in South Asia

An environmental photographer and journalist, Arati Kumar-Rao hopes to inspire change by documenting the impact of climate change across marginalised communities in South Asia.

Since 2014, India-based environmental photographer, writer and National Geographic Explorer Arati Kumar-Rao has been documenting the impacts of climate change in South Asia. She travels widely across the region, having spent extensive time around the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges, a major river flowing through India and Bangladesh, to observe nature, wildlife and communities firsthand.

Along the way, Kumar-Rao has captured shocking environmental disasters, from a toxic oil spill off the coast of Bangladesh in 2014 to the plight of environmental refugees. The people of Palash Gachhi, for example, were forced to leave their homes in India due to climate change and natural disasters.

The 39-year-old has also ventured into the wilderness, covering conflicts between local communities and elephants in the forests of Sri Lanka, as well as the struggle of Indus river dolphins in the heavily polluted Beas River in northern India. And for international outlets such as National Geographic, she has explored the scenes, sounds and societies across the deserts of Rajasthan, also in northern India. 

Kumar-Rao’s work has garnered praise from all over the world. For example, The Guardian shortlisted her Instagram account in its article, “The environment photographers you should be following on Instagram“, as did TIME magazine in its “8 Eco-Conscious Instagram Accounts to Follow on Earth Day” article. 

By documenting deteriorating environments and human-animal conflicts, Kumar-Rao hopes to inspire positive change. Here, she talks with Ariana about some of her environmental missions, memorable experiences, what she hopes to achieve, and what’s next for her. 

Waiting For The Tides. Credit: Arati Kumar-rao
Crab catcher Kabita Mandal waits for a crab to bite her line as the tide begins to rise around her. She lives in the largest mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans. Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

Ariana: What inspired you to become an environmental photojournalist and document climate change in South Asia?

Arati Kumar-Rao: The urge to tell stories has been a part of me since I was a kid. Growing up, I was privy to raucous debates between my father, an environmentalist, and my uncle who worked for The World Bank, on the nature of large dams. 

My father would also read me the works of American novelist and environmental activist Wendell Berry, such as poetry book Reverdure and The Unsettling of America, as well as Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka’s famous book, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. All of this informed my sensibilities. 

Each month, an issue of National Geographic would arrive and I’d pore over it, taking in the breadth of stories and the depth of reportage. It fascinated me. I remember one particular issue with a blurred photo of a charging forest elephant on its cover: Michael “Nick” Nichols’ documentation of the Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in Congo. I knew then that I wanted to tell such long-term stories on landscapes, too.

So far, which of your stories or photo series has been the most meaningful? 

AKR: It is impossible to choose among my stories. I find each of them meaningful and relevant with far-reaching implications – that is why I choose to tell these stories. 

Telling slow-burn stories requires you to spend time in the field. Sometimes, it is many seasons, or years, for a single large, interconnected story. This needs resources. And funding for this brand of immersive, deep storytelling is the biggest challenge.

For instance, I worked on a story about the traditional, rain-fed agricultural systems in Rajasthan’s Thar desert. Those living in the Thar desert rely on the cycles of the seasons and draw from ancient wisdom to survive; they have managed to feed thousands of people without irrigation for centuries.

In 1988, however, the government began major mining operations to “better utilise” the desert “wasteland”. These actions threaten to destroy the livelihoods of desert dwellers, as well as the entire ecosystem.  

Telling slow-burn stories requires you to spend time in the field. Sometimes, it is many seasons, or years, for a single large, interconnected story.

What drew you to this story? What was most challenging about it?

AKR: On the face of it, a self-sufficient village with plenty of water in the deep desert seemed incongruous. This piqued my interest. 

Moreover, I had started studying the ecology of the Thar desert with a team, and this human ecology seemed like a perfect complement to complete the picture of life in the most populated desert on earth.  

I did not know that the story would take over a year to document, due to how each of the desert’s seasons impacts the agricultural process.  I had to make 10 trips to the desert, which created huge budgetary issues. But I believed in the story and paid out of pocket for it. 

In an ideal scenario, I should be [funding my reporting] with grants, which are unfortunately hard to come by. They are the only way one can tell slow burn stories without becoming a pauper. 

What do you find shocking about environmental destruction and climate change in South Asia?

AKR: Governmental apathy across the world to the plight of those closest to the land, and our collective incorrigible disconnect from the land and what it is telling us.

Our myopia as a species and as policy-makers; our focus on short-term profit and gains; and our inability to connect issues and see the bigger picture has shocked me, and continues to shock me, time and time again.

How does climate change impact marginalised populations?  

AKR: Climate change in South Asia is already wreaking havoc on people’s lives. It affects agriculture, coastlines, and water security everywhere, especially in arid areas. Millions of people live in the Indian subcontinent, which depends on the annual monsoon season for water. Without the annual rainfall that replenishes rivers and groundwater, droughts would devastate the populace – both urban and rural. 

All these things affect the people who live [and work] closest to the land, because of the erratic weather events. Depressed monsoons or uneven rainfall, such as long droughts and then a season’s worth of rain in a few days, all exacerbates unground inequities that make livelihoods like farming tenuous and hurts the poor all across the Indian subcontinent.

[Read more: Why mental wellbeing is essential for vulnerable populations during Covid-19]

Based on your experience, what is the most important change individuals and corporations could make to slow climate change?

AKR: Currently, given the trajectory of the Indian government and their development planning, the single biggest change that would help avert disasters is if environmental impact assessments are done in a scientific and intellectually honest manner with public consultation that allows those affected to have a voice. Basically, if corporations, governments, and scientific institutions behave as if democracy matters, many disasters can and will be averted. 

Credit: Arati Kumar-rao
A 10-year-old girl joins clean up efforts after 358,000 litres of heavy fuel oil spilled from a shipwreck into the Sundarbans in 2014. Credit: Arati Kumar-Rao

So what can be done?  

AKR: I would urge everyone to break out their walking shoes, break out of their air-conditioned cocoons and walk in this world among people unlike them, and in milieus unlike their own. 

If we can shed our entitlement and see things for what they are; take a longer view than this quarter’s profits; see how problems are interconnected and how on-ground inequities mean that the same problem affects some folks disproportionately; take time to listen to the science, and pay attention to the nuance, all these doubts about climate change and its impact will be a non-issue. 

There is so much work that needs to be done here and now if we want to see a more just world. If. It all comes down to that one word – there needs to be a willingness. 

If we can see how problems are interconnected, and how on-ground inequities mean that same problem affect some folks disproportionately; if we can take time to listen to the science all these doubts about climate change will be a non-issue. 

What kind of lasting impact do you want to make, when it comes to climate change in South Asia?

AKR: I truly think of myself as a chronicler of the world, someone who uses tools to tell a story – photography being one of them, words, sounds, and art being the others. If I dare hope that my work will have any lasting impact, I hope it will break down silos. It will get people talking about issues that don’t seem – on the face of things –  to intersect, but they do.  

[Read more: What’s happening to our planet in 9 key numbers]

Has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work? What’s next for you?

AKR: The current pandemic situation has grounded me – literally and metaphorically. But I have found that I can survive on far less, and it has made me more mindful of my privilege – one that has allowed me not to suffer in the lockdown, and for that I am eternally grateful. 

I’ve discovered wondrous natural treasures in my tiny backyard and terrace. I have discovered the wonder of native bees – carpenter bees and mason bees, cuckoo bees and tiny honey bees – right here in my backyard.

I am able to, by daily observation, follow their lifecycle and document it. Our cities are seeing a desperate fall off in populations of pollinators, given disappearing green spaces, and this insight into what life one small urban organic garden with native plants can host, has opened my eyes to the possibilities. 

I have also spent six precious months with my family. But once this passes, I need to get back to working on documenting environmental migration, for which I have won a grant from National Geographic.

I have also been writing a much-delayed book about my experiences in the field. It is about how the landscape in the Indian subcontinent is changing. It draws upon what I have seen and documented, but also adds a current context to the issues.

For more information about Arati Kumar-Rao’s upcoming book visit her website.

This interview has been edited for clarity.