Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:January 6th, 2010 11:13 EST
What has led to the drastic depletion of fish and clam in the Vembanad waters?

What has led to the drastic depletion of fish and clam in the Vembanad waters?

By SOP newswire2

By Shwetha George 

Kottayam (Women`s Feature Service) - Kerala`s water-bodies are the greatest contributors to its food security. But for the hard working villagers of Mattapally, a small village by the banks of the massive Vembanad Lake in Kottayam district, the negative impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly obvious, to the point that their livelihoods are being seriously threatened.  

Shobhana, 48, has been married to Soman, a fisherman, for 30 years. Does that make her a fisherwoman? If it did, her life would have been far easier. For, a person who fishes goes out and returns after three to six hours, irrespective of the outcome. The rest of the day, he or she is free. But for a fisherman`s wife, the daily grind is monotonous and unrelenting. Shobhana wakes up at 4 am, sees her husband off to sea at five, and packs two lunch packets for her sons who take the bus to their construction sites. She then finishes her chores in a rush because she has to stand by the shore at 10 am, ready to take in the day`s haul of mussels (black clam).  

And thus begins her day`s labour: Shobhana and other women carry the catch in aluminium vessels - making repeated trips - to the processing site, a tarpaulin roof supported by four poles. The work is hard. "We wash the clams, boil them, and then sift them to separate the meat from the shells. The scooped out meat need to be cleaned, as also the shells," says Thankamma, 48, who works along with Shobhana. The process of sifting alone takes three hours, depending on the size of the clams. By 6 pm Sarala, 46, would have just finished her day`s labour, but she is all set to re-enter the kitchen to make dinner. On a good day, she can finish by 4 pm, especially on Saturdays when her college-going son lends a helping hand. But she would prefer that her son does "anything but this". 

At Mattapally, all that this back-breaking labour fetches these women is Rs 100 a day (US$1=Rs 46.5). Today, a kilo of clam-meat costs Rs 25 but even at the end of two days, the maximum one can sell is nine kilos. Says Shobhana, "Even when my husband takes six hours to fish, he can bring home barely one basket which will yield less than a kilo of meat." The meat is bought by local purchasers, who go from door to door with their weighing scales.  

Rameshan, a local fisherman, recalls the time when he used to catch 20 kilos in three hours. "For generations, we have survived on the bounty from this lake but, today, we are forced to send our sons for construction work," he laments. It is the only other job available that earns for these boys what their fathers used to get in their heyday - Rs 250 to Rs 300 a day.  

What has led to the drastic depletion of fish and clam in the Vembanad waters?

The Vembanad wetland system is described as one that covers an area of over 1,512 square kilometres, bordered by Kerala`s Alappuzha, Kottayam and Ernakulam districts. It lies at sea level, separated from the Arabian Sea by a narrow barrier island. It is linked to coastal lakes to the north and south through canals. Several rivers flow into Vembanad and three islands are located within its expanse. 

But the grandeur that was once associated with Vembanad has all but disappeared. This lake which was once 400 square kilometres wide has shrunk to approximately 45 per cent of its original size. No one can talk about climate change in Kerala today, without highlighting the dangers posed to this wetland system by pollution and global warming. "Anthropogenic intervention has wreaked havoc on this lake over the last 100 years," says Profesor Dr K.S. Purushan, retired Dean of The College of Fisheries and member of the Kerala State Fishermen Debt Relief Commission. 

All the initiatives taken by the state since Independence to develop its agriculture; tourism; and naval and surface transport were achieved on land reclaimed from the Vembanad. Little attention was paid to the price this entailed: the massive shrinkage of a once bounteous eco-system.  

Elaborated Dr Purushan, "When the expanse of a water-body decreases, unwanted properties get dumped, leading to a suspended state of sedimentation and silt, thereby polluting the waters continually. When deposits of silt, which is nothing but high-density molecules of silica, come into contact with the clam, the shell breaks open resulting in actual genocide."  

When atmospheric temperature increases because of the effect of greenhouse gases, the temperature of the water too increases. In the case of the clams, if they are to survive, the temperature of the water must not exceed 29 degrees centigrade. Also, the clams thrive better in fresh water. The percentage of salinity in the lake, therefore, should be low. When rainfall is scarce, not enough dilution takes place and the saline content in the lake waters remains high - again affecting the amount of meat within the clam shells. The Thanneermukkom Bund in Kumarakom, Kottayam, was originally built to prevent tidal action and the intrusion of salt water into the Vembanad Lake but it has proved increasingly ineffective over the years. 

Furthermore, as clams feed on small algae matter produced in the water body through solar penetration, a constant movement of water is required for sunlight to pass through. But with growing human intervention, the free flow of water has been obstructed and in fact many parts of the lake are cut off from the dynamic movement of the waters.  

All this has taken a heavy toll on the health and quantity of clams in the backwaters. This in turn means that the women of Mattappally village have to work even harder to earn even a pittance. "Sometimes the back-pain is killing," says Sarala, one of the youngest in the group spoken to. Unlike 80 per cent of the fisherfolk here, her husband is neither an alcoholic nor a gambler "We both work equally hard so that our sons can continue their college education," she says. 

All the women here suffer from osteoporosis. Many of their children drop-out of school and college, not because of lack of money but because they are needed to help their mothers harvest the clam meat. 

Shobhana adds to the household income by weaving ropes. "If I work continuously for six hours, I can weave up to 60 ropes," she says. One rope costs a rupee. But rope making is crucially dependent on power to keep the coiling machine functional and sometimes the supply is very erratic. 

Ultimately, it is clam-meat harvesting that is the mainstay of fisher women like Sarala and Shobhana. Which is why, despite the physical pain they experience, they have learnt not to complain but continue working with quiet desperation. 


Fish and Chips, For The State 

Mostly Kerala derives its food security from its water-bodies. The nutrient value of the sardines, mackerel, tuna and other pelagic fish is a blessing to 10 per cent coastal population of the state. But global warming is one of the leading factors for the destruction of the catch. "Even an increase by one per cent can lead to the migration of the pelagic fish to the upper latitude," informs Dr Purushan. In this case, the areas that will then benefit are the coasts of Gujarat and Goa. Scientists and academicians fear that the after-effect of such an event would be the likelihood of losing this nutritional treasure trove.  

This, however, cannot take place all of a sudden. And there are alternatives. "One suggested by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation is to start a Bio-Shield Revolution," says Dr Purushan. The Bio-Shield Revolution is about establishing mangroves along the coast as natural vegetation, with excessive foliage facing sea-wards. This can be raised along with the natural habitat and can maintain the balance of oxygen and carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere by consuming the latter through its photosynthetic process. The mangroves will also act as breeding and feeding grounds for commercially important fish, enhancing the fishery potential of adjacent coastal waters. 

(©  Women`s Feature Service)