Fish and Food Issues
Bangladesh, classified by the United Nations as a low income (GNP around US$ 280) food-deficit (calorie consumption 80%)
of requirement) country, has one of the highest population densities of any country (more than 800 inhabitants/sq. km). Most
people of the country live in rural areas, and as a result there is a high degree of dependency on natural resources and
agriculture for food, income and livelihood. Increasing population, pollution and environmental degradation are putting critical
pressures on natural resources. This is threatening the livelihood and food security of millions of Bangladeshis. Two key
priorities of the Bangladesh Government and the donor community (who finance up to 80% of the development budget) are
therefore to develop the rural economy, and to increase food production. At the same time, major efforts are being made to
reduce the impact of seasonal flooding through flood control and drainage projects. Ironically, it would seem that these
development efforts are in fact threatening the sustainability of a key food resource in Bangladesh: the flood plain fishery.
Fish provides the main source of animal protein in Bangladesh (60-80%), but animal protein contributes only 10-15% of the
protein intake. A diet of rice and lentils therefore provides for most of the protein and other nutritional need. Fish perhaps
plays the most crucial role in the diet as a source of minerals and vitamins, essential for healthy growth and development.
For, in addition to other nutrients, fish is a rich source of Vitamin-A, Calcium, Iron and Zinc. It is therefore a particularly
important part of the diet for children and lactating mothers. Bangladesh has the highest level of malnutrition in the Asia-
Pacific region. This affects 70-80 percent of the children in the country with a very high infant mortality rate (over 1 in 10 up
to one year of age). Fish could play a key role in alleviating this problem.
Since 1960s, the country has placed considerable effort on enhancing its food production capacity and developing its rural
economy through the "green revolution". Since 1980s, there has also been a significant development of aquaculture as an
alternative to open water fish (the "blue revolution", which now produces around 30% of Bangladesh's fish supplies).
Although from a production perspective the green and blue revolutions have achieved notable success, it is questionable
how equitable the distribution of their benefits has been. It is also questionable whether the blue revolution is an appropriate
strategy to address Bangladesh's protein needs. Rather, aquaculture has been more successful in producing fish as cash
crop, thus improving the incomes of pond owners and increasing urban fish supplies.
There is increasing evidence that both the green and blue revolutions are having negative impact on traditional food
production systems. Such systems are based on open access to seasonally diverse agriculture and fisheries activities, and
use diverse common property flood plain resources. By contrast, the modern intensive and semi-intensive production
systems of the green and blue revolutions are based on single or few crops, and restrict ownership and access rights of
individuals or specific group's. The green and blue revolutions are therefore forcing a change in resource ownership and
access regimes. A regime of open access (based on traditional rights) and common property flood plain resources is being
replaced by restricted access to individual or group-owned resources. A move away from subsistence fishing and farming to
cash based aquaculture and agriculture and purchase of food from the market is also being encouraged. Such changes have
profound implications for the food and livelihood security of poorer households. The question therefore arises, will
subsistence fishers and consumers be able to adapt successfully to this new regime, or will their fragile rights and survival
strategies be eroded by forces beyond their control?
Freshwater Aquatic Resources
The flood plains of Bangladesh provide one of the most productive and diverse freshwater faunas in the world. Seven
hundred rivers and numerous open water bodies seasonally amount to more than 50 percent of Bangladesh's land surface,
providing an area of some 3 million hectares of permanent waters. This unique but vulnerable aquatic biodiversity is a
precious national heritage, and the birth-right of both present and future generations. Over 300 species of plants and 400
species of fish and other aquatic fauna depend on wetlands for whole or part of their life cycle.
Freshwater fisheries in particular make an invaluable contribution to the national economy. They also form an intrinsic and
essential part of Bangladesh's cultural traditions (mache bhate Bangalee - literally meaning Bengalees live on fish and rice).
They provide a renewable food resource on which the nutritional well being and the livelihood of millions of rural Bangladeshi
households depend. They also represent a unique resource of genetic material which must be safeguarded for the future
nutritional and economic well being of generations to come. Forming an intrinsic part of the ecosystem, fish play a key role in
recycling nutrients and in the complex flood plain food web.
The seasonal flood waters inundating the plains of Bengal have renewed this aquatic life support system for millennia,
enriching the soils and washing away pollutants. This has enabled the rural population to enjoy open access rights to
common property fishery resources - without having to worry about their future availability. Diversity of seasons and habitats
(rivers, wetlands, water bodies, flood plain and dry land areas) provides for a seasonal diversity of available fish species.
This in turn provides the basis for diverse livelihood and food production options. As this diversity is depleted, so becomes
the food and livelihood security of the rural population increasingly vulnerable.