Story and Photography by Micah Coto
A flash of light pierces the sky, then! CRACK! Lightning! The rumbles of thunder are quickly drowned out by the bellowing rain. Giant storm clouds are silhouetted amongst a chaotic light show in the sky. The streets outside the house burst to life as sewage channels by the road rapidly turn into rivers. Watching from the doorway, she hears the rain pelting the windows so hard she fears they might crack. She moves quickly, gathering her things. Her mother had said they needed to be ready.
Trudging through the muddy grass behind her house, the force of the wind is so strong she struggles to walk straight, as she clings to her mother’s arm for life. They thought they would be safe this time. They thought the lake was dry and wouldn’t flood. With nowhere to go, they desperately climb the hill to escape the rising water. Looking towards her mother she asks why this is happening? She has never been so scared in her life.
It’s monsoon season.
Monsoon season is a familiar feature of the India calendar, with many areas across the country flooding every year. The heavy downpours replenish lakes and revitalise communities by raising the groundwater level. Unfortunately, because of the effects on climate change in the past few years, monsoon season has become more and more erratic, with severe droughts in some years, and torrential flooding in others. So how do the people in the path of the monsoons deal with this uncertainty?
Salem, is a small town only four and a half hours outside of Bangalore, and home to about 2.2 million people. Salem used to have more than two dozen lakes in the area - Mookaneri lake being one of the largest, spanning 58 acres. These lakes were primary sources of water for farming, cattle and household needs, but unfortunately over time they have dried up, become polluted, and are heavily encroached on.
The reason flooding is such a problem is because people and their homes have encroached on areas that were once lakes. Therefore, when large amounts of water fall in the region, it naturally finds its way into those areas causing flooding.
For those who live in these flood zones, the weeks to come could very well become a living nightmare.
We travelled to Salem to visit a local activist who was known for standing up for the local environment and speaking out against corruption. Piyush Manush is a north Indian who has lived most of his life in Salem and together with the Salem Citizen Forum he’s made great strides in his efforts to protect the natural environment.
The group have rehabilitated two lakes including Mookaneri Lake, and have restored 250 acres of forest.
Piyush is also known for his outspoken protest of mining, encroachment and building projects proposed in areas that effect natural cycles. His efforts often cause stoppages and long delays to these destructive plans. Because of this, the local government has been largely unsupportive of his efforts, to the point where attempts have even been made to silence him.
But for now, his most urgent cause is the coming monsoon season.
Rainy season looms
The streets smell like waste. Kids play amongst rubble that has been cleared out of the sewage ways only days before and dumped on the side of the road.
If these poorly organised sewage ways become polluted, flood water will spill onto the street, seeping into local houses and businesses.
Despite repeated pleas for assistance, the government only responded to calls for action to clear some of the worst sewage ways for the coming monsoon just a few days ago. Unfortunately, this help has come far too late, with many areas already suffering from flooding and water damage.
The affected households and families will be forced to take refuge in local schools, the displaced clinging to anything they can hold on to – hundreds of people’s lives uprooted and washed away.
Citizens in these areas are seriously concerned about what comes next. As Piyush showed us around the already affected flood zones, we quickly become surrounded by people who recognise him as a spokesperson for the community, and they plead with him to bring their issues to the Government’s attention.
For without government support in the form of either relocation, lake rehabilitation or at least clear waterways, these people will continue to suffer the consequences of monsoon season with little hope in sight.
Micah Coto is a final year photojournalism and documentary student based in Brisbane. He found his love for photography while living in China as a teenager, and has since worked on a number of award winning projects including his project Look Closer which focused on the disconnect that occurs between zoo animals and patrons, placing him 4th in the Wildlife category for Australian Photographer of the Year awards 2018. He has also done work in Nepal photographing alongside organizations that looked after wild street dogs, vaccinating and de-sexing them to then release them back into their local areas. Now on the final leg of completing his Bachelor, he hopes to move on to greater and bolder adventures. (See Instagram)