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Aquaculture’s promise

May 02, 2011

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“GIVE a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu famously said. “Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

For years, this adage has helped frame debates across a variety of disciplines. However, while globally influential, it is by no means universally applicable — as the sad realities of Sindh make painfully clear. In this parched, food-insecure region flush with fishermen and farmers, people have long known how to fish. The problem is that with water bodies shrivelling up, there are increasingly fewer fish to catch. Many impoverished residents would be grateful for a single fish, given their struggles to secure a day’s worth of food.

Pakistan’s natural resource constraints know no provincial borders, yet they are notably severe in Sindh. Water tables are plummeting, with great volumes of Indus River flows diverted upstream to satiate agricultural and urban demand in Punjab.

Sindh’s water security is further threatened by population growth and global warming, and by the water-intensive, large-scale farming envisioned by foreign investors jockeying for agricultural land.

With surface water supplies threatened, users are increasingly tapping groundwater resources — yet according to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, a staggering 95 per cent of the province’s shallow groundwater supplies are bacteriologically contaminated. This is unsurprising, given the technical deficiencies and inefficiency that characterise Sindh’s water treatment facilities.

In a province where so many livelihoods are tied to water availability and food production, water stress aggravates food insecurity and threatens economic well-being. A recent World Bank report concludes that Pakistan’s poorest spend at least 70 per cent of their meagre incomes on food — and undoubtedly many of them hail from Sindh. According to data from the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, some of the province’s small farmers spend a whopping 87 per cent of their incomes on food.

Furthermore, with so many provincial residents either landless or owning two hectares or less, communities struggle to access water and arable land.

The consequences of Sindh’s natural resource crisis are stark: raging rivers reduced to canals and puddles, and fertile farmland to wasteland. Livelihood-deprived fishermen and farmers relegated to gathering firewood for a living, or obliged to migrate to urban areas.

Responses to this crisis are predictable. Policymakers and politicians fixate on the supply side, calling for more dams and food production. Resource specialists preach the virtues of demand-side management, advocating for less wasteful policies. NGO activists latch on to access issues, arguing that land reform is the elixir.

Taken individually, each approach is necessary, yet insufficient. Increasing the quantum of water and food is pointless so long as they continue to be squandered by poor resource management. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect some of Pakistan’s most water- and food-insecure residents to become hard-core resource conservationists. And land reform is a non-starter in a nation caught in the grips of powerful landed interests. The challenge is to fashion policy responses that address supply-side, demand-side, and access concerns simultaneously. One promising option is to strengthen Pakistan’s aquaculture (fish farming) industry. Long denounced by environmentalists as diesel-belching, fish faeces-depositing coastal monstrosities, today’s fish farms are increasingly located farther offshore, and are utilising less polluting and more efficient methods. They offer numerous advantages for Sindh.

First, fish farming — the world’s fastest-growing food-production sector — can boost fish supplies (Pakistan on the whole has seen its wild fisheries stock decline by 75 per cent). Given the farms’ controlled environments, robust yields are effectively ensured. Additionally, fish farmers raise fast-growing fish like cobia. This means quick harvests and less of the mercury accumulation that taints slower-growing fish like salmon.

Second, fish farming can help combat malnutrition. Forty-five million Pakistanis are malnourished, and the condition contributes to about half of Pakistan’s child deaths. It is particularly pronounced in the rural, desert areas of Pakistan that define much of Sindh. Fortuitously, fish are rich in Vitamin D, a mineral in which many Pakistanis are deficient, and high in protein. Yet aquaculture’s greatest appeal for Sindh arguably lies in its light resource footprint. Offshore fish farming requires neither farmland nor finite water resources — and according to aquatic experts, the amount of seafloor it requires is proportionately less than the amount of pasture land needed for land-based farming.

Though blessed with great potential, Pakistan’s aquaculture sector has been slow to develop. Nonetheless, government financing is substantial, and foreign investors are calling. The US-based KZO Sea Farms company has offered an impressive proposal to establish offshore cobia farming facilities in the Arabian Sea. Such initiatives can offer new livelihood opportunities for rural, unemployed fishermen and farmers migrating to Karachi, where rapid urbanisation puts great pressures on job availability. They can also offer a relatively stable source of food supply for a province rife with food insecurity.

To be sure, questions abound, and particularly about access issues. Would harvests be made available to local communities, ensuring that impoverished Pakistanis — and not wealthy interests or overseas markets — are the main beneficiaries? Would fish farmers see that cheaper products — cobia, after all, is expensive — are harvested as well? And can aquaculture truly offer a wide range of employment opportunities for Pakistanis?

Tackling such challenges takes time. Yet by doing so successfully, Sindh can move closer to feeding itself not for a day, but for a lifetime.

The writer is programme associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.

michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org