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INDIA : Restoring Fisheries in the Sunderbans

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Distribution of fish fingerlings in Cyclone Aila-affected regions of West Bengal

ACTED has been working on a disaster recovery and preparedness programme in Cyclone Aila-affected regions of the Sunderbans in West Bengal, India, since February 2010.

Although most of the beneficiaries of this region- the largest delta in the world and covering parts of India and Bangladesh - are poor, they have access to fresh water ponds and so fishing is a huge source of food and income for them. However, Cyclone Aila, which hit in May 2009, washed considerable amounts of salty sea water from the surrounding delta, Bay of Bengal (Indian Ocean), into the area, making soil and water saline; salinity which remains even one year after the event. The increase in salinity has led to many problems for the locals, one of which was the destruction of fisheries.

ACTED had pre-selected isolated households; including female-headed households, elderly-headed families and families where the main earning member has migrated out as the beneficiaries of this project. As part of our Cash for Work project ACTED excavated 28 ponds by July this year, clearing out the saline soil. Today, there is water available to 250 households and they also have access to ponds.

This August marked the halfway point of the programme by which time much of the groundwork had been finished and implementation of various activities was well underway, including the distribution of fish fingerlings. The distribution of fingerlings is part of the livelihood component of the programme.

One day of fish distribution and its difficulties

The logistics of the fish distribution were more complicated than one would have imagined. First, a truck carrying 400 kilograms of fingerlings in 35 degree Celsius water had to cross one of the many rivers in this delta region. This meant waiting for low-tide which was expected at 3PM but didn't occur until 5 PM. Then 200 people's names had to be matched with ACTED's beneficiary list. In theory, this seems easy enough, but it required an organized and coordinated team effort from ACTED as well as from our local NGO partner Tagore Society For Rural Development (TSRD). At this point, the sun had set, and in an area with no electricity, it meant filling in vouchers and distributing fish by lamp-light. Once the vouchers were handed to the beneficiaries, they lined up with their buckets to collect their fish. This is to be repeated again and again until the full 2,000 fish farmers are reached.

The lack of rain affects the locals

However, the matter of fish doesn't end with distribution and we are still facing some obstacles. This area has received close to 40% less rain than usual and the state government has officially declared it drought-affected. Being the first monsoon after the cyclone, the rain is badly needed not only for growing rice and for storing, for use during the dry season, but also for cleaning out the salt in the ground which otherwise will negatively affect agriculture, fisheries and sources of drinking and domestic water. Increased salinity may in turn increase the mortality of the fish.

While continuing to hope for rain, ACTED and the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department are adapting the programme to the context: instead of fishing nets we will provide fish food that is no longer growing naturally in the ponds. Another solution will be to treat the pond water with calcium oxide to reduce the salinity. Given the already disastrous effects the drought is having on paddy production, fisheries will be one of the few sources of local income for these people who seem to be facing one disaster after another.