Climate Change Leaves Fisherman at Sea

By Papri Sri Raman, Womens Feature Service

For the thousands living along and off the long coastline of India, climate change is a harsh reality. Speaking at a public hearing on climate change in Puducherry – organised by Oxfam India along with other NGOs – fisherwomen, salt pan workers and coastal farmers explained how rising seas have consumed coconut groves; how altered wind patterns threaten fisherman at sea; and how global warming robs families of livelihood, security and education.

Janaki, 43, and 25 other women crowded the back-benches at the public hearing. They nodded their heads in agreement when their chief minister, V. Vaithalingam, stated, “Normally, Puducherry gets more rain than Karaikal, but this has been reversed in the last few years. Look at the unseasonal floods in Kurnool and Karnataka, supposedly drought-prone areas.”

These women certainly understand how erratic rains can impact ordinary lives. Hailing from Pillaichavadi, Bommayarpalayam, Veerampattinam, Nallavadi and neighbourhood areas on the Puducherry coast, they belong to fishing families. Every day their men bring catch ashore, which they, in turn, take to the local markets to sell. The altered climate patterns have drastically impacted their source of livelihood: “There is very little fish now, not enough to feed our families,” revealed Janaki.

“March and April were good seasons 30 years ago. There was a good shrimp season. Every fisherman then caught at least 10 kilograms of fish. Now, this has fallen to just one kilogram,” added another fisherman at the hearing.

So where has all the catch gone? Ask any fish-worker along India’s 8,118 kilometre-long (including islands) coastline, the answers are similar – “Low catch… unpredictable rainfall”. For communities from the Gujarat and Maharashtra coast, pollution is another such hurdle to income-generation. “Global warming, increase in temperatures has impacted all the activities of coastal people,” added Vaithalingam.

But just how many people would be affected along the Indian coast? Millions to say the least: Around 10 million fisherfolk in 2,000 coastal villages in 13 states and union territories, representing nearly one per cent of the total population of the country, depend on fishing, according to data from the Government of India and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Then there are around two million people employed in associated activities; while almost two hundred million live in coastal cities and towns, including the three sea-side metros, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.

Thus, the testimonies of those involved in fishing and coastal agriculture – people hailing from the islands of Andaman and Nicobar, and Lakshadweep, Orissa; Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat and the rest of the 13 states represented at the hearing – echoed the loss that millions suffer in terms of incomes, wellbeing and safety, as a result of climate change.

Ajantha, 32, from Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, belonging to a federation of 12,000 fisher-women, noted that the changing velocity and wind made it difficult for the fishermen to go out to the open sea.

Salt pan workers from coastal Karnataka narrated how the erratic rains disrupted their salt harvest, while their counterparts from Orissa said that erosion was threatening their livelihood.

Women from Tamil Nadu observed that over the last 30 years the shore had vanished, with as much as 200 m to 1,500 m of beach land eroded on the east coast. One testimony highlighted how the 30-year-old Kannagi statue in Poompukar village of Nagapattinam district is being constantly relocated as the sea gets closer and closer.

The rising waters have also led to the disappearance of beaches on the Chennai, Thiruvallur and Puducherry coasts. The speakers explained that the eventual construction of artificial sea walls and rocks on shrinking beaches cause a loss of work space for fishing communities.

According to Nalini Boral, from Podampeta village in Ganjam district of Orissa, rising waters end up compromising the safety of women. Not only do women have to deal with their homes being washed away, they also end up having to walk several miles in search of potable water and bathing water, as a result of the saline intrusion.

Similar tales of saline intrusion were narrated from Andhra Pradesh where the ground water level has dropped. In Uttar Kannada coast (west coast), saline intrusion reaches 30 kilometres in places where the Gurupur river and the Sharavati river reach the sea. Ground water is also heavily polluted in coastal Maharashtra and receding in the Sundarbans and in east Midnapore, West Bengal.

Of the many problems that the speakers highlighted, the issue of depleting catch engaged several of the women present. According to Boral, who is in her 20s, the seer and pomfret catch has reduced but sardine has increased. However, she explained, “No trader is interested in the low quality fish.” Fisherman Arjalla Dasu from Vishakapattinam coast recollected how only a few years ago he had sufficient catch within a kilometre or two. Now he has to go 60 kilometres out to sea to find any fish.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, what could earlier be caught in four hours takes eight hours to find; and what could be found two kilometres from the shore is now caught eight kilometres away. Further, Jafer Harsham from Lakshadweep reported, “Live bait for tuna is now difficult to find in their traditional areas since the coral, in which the bait fish breed, has been affected.”

Also impacted by climate change are Orissa’s Olive Ridleys. The turtles have stopped coming to the Purunabandha coast because of erosion and loss of beach.

Women too bear the brunt of a poor catch. Along the Ganjam coast, “as the catch has fallen, women who sold fish have less money in their hands. The men demand the money, so women go into towns for work. By the time they return it is dark and by then some villagers have begun drinking. This has become a hazard,” informed Boral, while recalling one incident where a young woman was assaulted.

With the women away from the house, there has been an increase in the number of school dropouts, with children opting to work on cashew plantations for Rs 30 to Rs 40 (US$1=Rs 46.5) a month. Periodic migration of families has also affected schooling.

Erratic climate conditions have taken a toll on the lives of those who live near estuaries and rivers and depend on fish breeding. Some of the speakers noted that climate change has led to the loss of natural sea barriers such as sand dunes and mangroves. Maharashtra fishing communities, for instance, have reported large-scale destruction of mangroves, while in East Midnapore, the native vegetation has disappeared and the mangroves are decaying.

The testimonies of the coastal people present at the Puducherry hearing illustrate how climate change has drastically impacted the lives of poor people and made access to resources more difficult and remote for them.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the website.