Why are India's farmers killing themselves?

Story highlights

  • India's water shortages have gotten worse, according to photographer Harsha Vadlamani
  • "If this is not climate change, I don't know what is," he says

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Harsha Vadlamani knows India's drought cycles.

As a photographer, he's documented life without water.
    But then he heard about crops turning to dust and farmers committing suicide.
    How could this have happened?
    "People here, they're used to water shortages and they know how to deal with it," Vadlamani told me by phone from Hyderabad, India, where he's based. "But these last three years, it's gotten worse."
    He set out to document the conditions that would lead farmers to kill themselves because of the debt and crop loss caused by the changing weather. It's a crime scene that likely has all of our fingerprints on it.
    "If this is not climate change, I don't know what is," he said.
    Photographer Harsha Vadlamani
    Vadlamani's photographs of drought in Maharashtra, India, which were taken between March and May of this year, stand as evidence of the human toll of climate change. By burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests, we humans are destabilizing the climate. That has life-changing consequences for all of us.
    We're too hesitant to connect these dots. Floods in Louisiana, fires in California, towns in Alaska voting to move because the Earth is melting out from beneath them. While it's somewhat difficult to pin any individual weather event on climate change, it's clear that in the last two years we are getting a peek at what a warming world looks like.
    We ignore these warnings at our peril.
    The writer Bill McKibben has called for an all-out war on climate change. While that language is strong, I have to agree. Climate change is a war we're fighting against ourselves. We've become slaves to fossil fuels. We think the energy we're using is cheap, but its costs are actually deferred. Or they're passed on to the world's poorest people.
    That's certainly visible in Vadlamani's photographs and stories. He shows wells that are all but dry, or that must be replenished by tankers carrying water for hundreds of kilometers. Crop yields that are one-fifth of normal. One woman collapsed and died in front of a well as she struggled to get water, he wrote. He tells of men borrowing money to remove kidney stones, which can form without proper hydration. And families being chased off the land they cherish only to find themselves living in squalor in India's megacities.

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    "Wherever I went, people would invariably offer me water, often from the pots that they're carrying home after walking a great distance or waiting for hours for the water tanker to show up," Vadlamani said. "I'd politely refuse, having just seen how much they struggled to get those few pots of water, but they always insisted that I drank the water they offered."
    Vadlamani, a former IT worker who became a photographer to try to better understand his country, told the farmers he visited over the course of four trips that their weather was changing because of the actions of people on the other side of the world -- because of SUVs in the United States or factories in China. India, too, is the world's third-biggest climate polluter. All three countries say they want to shift away from coal and toward clean energy sources like solar power and wind. But it's happening far too slowly.
    "We're all not islands," Vadlamani said. "Our actions affect those living thousands of miles away."
    It's a truth that's difficult to grapple with.
    But it's one we must confront.