India’s Dammed Rivers Suffer Fisheries Collapse

Parineeta Dandekar
Monday, December 3, 2012

Fishing Groups Take Steps to Fight Back

It may surprise many that India is second in the world in freshwater fish production. More than 75% of fisherfolk in India depend on freshwater fisheries for their livelihoods. Though there is no systematic assessment of livelihood dependence on rivers, nearly 11 million Indians depend on rivers for their livelihoods and nutrition.

Unfortunately, riverine fisheries are one of India’s most neglected areas. Rivers have too often been looked at as providers of water or as dumping grounds for wastewater. The many invaluable services that are unique to rivers – fisheries, cultural and religious values, recreation, riparian farming, climate regulation, groundwater recharge and farmland replenishment, to name a few – have been ignored.

Dams in India have led to fisheries collapses in almost all of its major rivers, severely affecting biodiversity and livelihoods. Fisherfolk, one of the poorest segments of Indian society, have been deeply impacted. There is no compensation or rehabilitation mechanism for them, nor strong organized protest. In the words of an anguished fisher woman in Maharashtra, “The dam reduced us from being the king of the river, to a slave of this dam.”

Though blessed with one of the richest riverine fish gene pools in the world, with nearly 1,000 fish species and a network of hundreds of rivers, floodplains, oxbows and estuaries, the contribution of riverine and capture fisheries is declining sharply and many have collapsed, despite having a great potential to grow. The past three National Five Year Plans have recognized the problem, but there has been no government action. The current riverine fishery is below subsistence level, with an average yield of 0.3 tonnes per km – is about 15% of their actual potential.

According to a 2010 report by the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), “Severe and drastic changes in the entire hydrological cycle of the river by dams and water abstractions has affected recruitment of most species … Larger dams are major cause of degradation of aquatic environment and disruption of livelihood communities dependent upon the fishery along the rivers. In India, natural flow of all major rivers have been regulated for fulfilling water demand of agriculture and the power sector, without giving any attention to the fisheries sector. As a result, rivers have lost their character and fisheries have suffered huge losses.” This and many other critical reports are not easily accessible to the public, neither are there any efforts by the public institutes to dessiminate the information.

Mighty Ganga at risk

Fisheries in the Ganga, a lifeline for millions of subsistence fisherfolk in five states, are on a steep decline due to large-scale water diversions through barrages (water diversion structures) and canals. Farraka Barrage, for example, is the main cause of the decimation of the once-thriving Hilsa fisheries along the river. After Farraka closed in 1975, the yield of Hilsa dropped from a high of 91 kg/km to near zero in 2006 in Allahabad. Only the very rich can now afford to buy the fish. 

The average yield of major carps in river Ganga has declined by 90% during the past four decades. The biologically and economically desirable fish species have started giving way to the low value species. Exotics have increased sharply as they prefer lower and more stagnant water levels which cannot be tolerated by the carps.

The importance of water levels for fisheries is illustrated by the fact that fisheries improve considerably after Allahabad, where a number of tributaries meet Ganga, bringing freshwater and sediments with them.

Narmada fisheries decline

Hilsa fisheries in the western Narmada River system declined by two-thirds between 1993 and 2005. Carp fisheries collapsed after Tawa Dam and irrigation projects reduced the river’s flow. Monthly catches of Mahseer, an endangered species, have now vanished. Fisheries in the Krishna estuary have collapsed due to absence of eflow releases from upstream dams. The estuary is now hyper-saline, unable to support estuarine fish.

According to researchers from Assam, carp landings in the Brahmaputra have declined by 30% after embankments cut the river’s longitudinal connectivity and destroyed breeding and nursing grounds of carps. In fact, according to CIFRI, dams have been the single most influential factor responsible for fisheries collapse in Indian rivers, a fact corroborated by numerous researchers, communities and nongovernmental groups. Unfortunately, these studies are not available in public domain, nor is there any serious effort to adopt mitigation measures. We do not have an accurate estimate of number of freshwater fishermen in India and their current status. The State fisheries departments are busy giving “No Objection Certificates” to cascade of dams that will be built without fish ladders, passes or eflows regimes. The ancient Fisheries Law of 1897 is entirely inadequate to address any of the current issues.

Taking Action

There are some bright lights in this grim situation. Since 2009, tribal communities in over 32 villages in Central India have come together to work on a People’s Biodiversity Register, under the Biodiversity Act of India. The People’s Biodiversity Register for the Kathani River, for example, revealed that this small river had 64 distinct fish species; the local tribal fishermen (Dhiwars) had distinct names for all of these species. The process was documented in 2009 by Prof. Madhav Gadgil and Dr. Nilesh Heda, fisheries scientist from Vidarbha. Following declining fish populations in Kathani, the communities, equipped with their own documentation and studies, voluntarily banned herbal fish poisons, and took an ecosystem approach to fish conservation by banning riparian tree felling, planting trees and conserving fish in riverine stretches or sanctuaries. Fish stocks are gradually improving in the river.

In the Vidarbha region of Central India, which has become infamous for its farmer suicides, fisherfolk are getting organized, forming self-help groups and fisheries cooperatives. In reality, “uneducated” tribal fishermen possess in-depth knowledge about fish species, breeding needs, habitats and ecology. With the help of organizations like Bhandara Abhyas Mandal, the groups have started documenting the diversity of fish and aquatic plants. Indigenous fish species found in traditional fish-rearing tanks are being documented. With the help of this knowledge, fish species are being propagated in derelict tanks by creating habitats using indigenous vegetation. Fish yields have increased dramatically following this approach.

The Indian government is exceedingly weak on protecting riverine fisheries. One of the most urgent first steps is to include the impacts of dams on fisheries in Environmental Impact Assessments and Management Plans for dams. We also need to adopt a strong law and supporting policies to protect fisheries and local livelihoods; put pressure on dam owners and operators to compensate affected fisherfolk; adopt a national law mandating restorative eflows through existing dams, and undertake serious research on fish passes and ladders for Indian conditions and species.

We also need honest and holistic cost benefit analysis of dams. Underperforming dams and barrages in biodiversity-rich regions need to be decommissioned. Finally, we need more protected and free flowing rivers to appreciate the range of services a healthy river can provide.

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