As a young woman, Nallangal Balakrishanan, a mother of three from Tamil Nadu, India, tended cattle and worked in her family’s fields. “There was plenty of water for farming,” she says. And each acre predictably yielded “30 bags of rice”— enough to feed the family and earn a living.
That’s why, after she married 25 years ago, Balakrishanan saved up to buy three acres of her own land. Farming involved costs, such as labor, seeds, and manure, but promised stability. But changing weather patterns—unreliable seasons and low rainfall levels— in this southeastern Indian state have destroyed her livelihood. Irrigation canals ran dry, making it impossible to maintain wet-field crops such as rice paddies, banana and sugarcane. “We lost our revenue from the fields and leave them barren most days of the year,” she says.
Cattle herding, once a major source of income in the community, has dried up with the green fodder grass. People barely have enough water for themselves much less for animals, and water scarcity has led to increased tensions: “Many use abusive language when we go to ask for water for the cattle.”
Balakrishan remembers lots of trees from her childhood, but many have been cut for firewood, and those that remain are mostly thorny acacia bushes instead of the healthy neem trees.
While many of her neighbors have migrated to nearby cities to find work, Balakrishan discovered in herself a wellspring of resilience. As president of the local association for water, sanitation and hygiene, she leads efforts to improve sanitation and water supply, such as installing toilets (with help from the PepsiCo Foundation) and educating people about conservation techniques and water-borne diseases. She is also planting new trees in her village to fight against climate change.
“I feel proud that I have a chance to bring about a change in the in the behavior of the people in response to natural calamities,” she says.
Balakrishan’s oldest daughter is a tailor and her son works in a factory, but her younger daughter married a farmer, which causes her mother concern. But Balakrishan believes in the power of positive thinking and thinks self-help groups can be “helpful to enhance [women’s] lives and relieve them from worries.”
“I am still dreaming of those days when the rain would come,” she says. But in the meantime, she’s making the best of her new reality.
With reporting by Akilandeswari Murugan/Gramalaya.