|Seven-year-old Poonam cools off from the August heat outside her house in Bhopal, India, the site of the 1984 Union Carbide industrial disaster. Tens of thousands of people face increased health risks due to ongoing underground water contamination. Alex Masi
I first met Poonam while I was researching the extreme health problems caused by heavily contaminated drinking water around Bhopal, India. Bhopal is the site of the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak, widely regarded as one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The catastrophe left at least 15,000 dead, according to the Indian government, and many thousands more afflicted with serious health problems.
But that was not the end of the tragedy. Most of the area surrounding the former pesticide factory now has serious deep-water contamination. The corporation, now owned by Dow Chemical Company, buried tons of chemical waste after the accident. Heavy monsoon rains soak the region each year, seeping through the buried waste and further polluting underground reservoirs.
Yet I find the image of Poonam inspiring: a little girl wearing a simple dress and an earring, sitting alone, refreshing herself in the rain. She is free to run barefoot on the ground, without apparent worry, water falling on her cheeks.
About a year after I shot this picture, it won the Photographers Giving Back Award. The organizers and I donated the $5,000 prize money to Poonam and her family, with the aim of helping them find a better life. The money helped send Poonam to school with her brother and sister, and their family now lives in a new home. Her father has a better business. Life, with a little assistance, seems to be improving.
I plan to see more of Poonam and her family in the future. Spending time with them is inspiring and gratifying. They seem to have found more faith in life, more dignity, and more belief in themselves and their potential.