SRI LANKA We lost all our fish

 Sri Lanka
 Emergency Response
 21st Feb 2011

Can better adaptive capacity save fish pond owners from the crushing devastation of a natural disaster?

In rural Batticaloa where villagers have to travel miles through endless roads lined with paddy fields to reach home, livelihood choices are few and far between. Rearing fish for a living is a common household practice in Punniyamoorthi Urithirathevi’s (Urithira) community but it’s also one which gets second place next to paddy cultivation, cattle breeding and manual labour.

Two years ago CARE came to Urithira’s community when she was struggling to survive as a single mother living in a women headed household of 3 widows and 2 children. Urithira explains “I have no father, my husband went missing because of the war and I don’t know to date where he is. Because of the war, my family had to relocate and when we returned, elephants had destroyed our house so we had no proper place to live. We struggled a lot. We didn’t know how to restart our lives. CARE came at that time. We didn’t know how to do anything. CARE told us and motivated us with meetings and told us how we need to start our lives.”

Like many rural families the concept of saving was an alien one but Urithira learnt fast as CARE officials taught them the basics of saving. “We were motivated to restart our lives and work hard in order to do so. We started saving. They told us to save 1 rupee a day. If we did that every day eventually we would have Rs.30 at the end of the month. In this manner, we would be able to save. We started following that. They told us how we can grow crops, how we can graze animals- how to talk to the rest of the community. We started progressing by following CARE’s instructions.”

In 2008 Urithira joined CARE’s Local Initiatives for Tomorrow 2 (LIFT2) project and as her skills as a community leader emerged, Urithira along with seven other members proposed a fresh water fish pond project that LIFT2 had identified as a profitable value chain activity for the area.

Their proposal was approved and Urithira and her group became proud owners of their first Income Generation Activity (IGA) with a grant of 225,000 rupees and training by the government’s Fisheries Department.

In May 2010 their fish pond was ready for the arrival of 2,000 Tilapia fingerlings. An excited Urithira and her group carefully watched over the pond, waiting expectantly for their first harvest in late December. During their 6 month wait, the group not only cared for the fish but was also exploring new ways of expanding the venture to new activities such as smoked fish and solar dried fish.

Recovering from disaster

December arrived and the monsoon rains came with it. A worried Urithira and her team visited the pond frequently, first inserting overflow pipes, checking fences and later laying diversionary bunds to stop it from overflowing. Their work was in vain. On January 7th an unmerciful storm hit the region, dumping 900mm of rain during 4 days of torrential downpour that helped the surrounding marshland to swallow the pond completely. All was lost!

A tearful Urithira explains, “It all happened overnight. There was very heavy wind and the water was flowing all over and we couldn’t even come near the pond that night. It broke completely on January 8th. When we saw that the pond was overflowing, we started working on it since the 4th of January, but despite our efforts, we lost all our fish.”

However devastated and discouraged they may be, the group still listened to LIFT2 staff as they discussed how best Urithira and her team can recover from the disaster. LIFT2 staff were careful to remind them that all was not lost.

CARE’s Mathimaran Gnananayagam, the Project Coordinator for LIFT2 Marketing, who had helped the group with the project says “We’re not only covering the business part of their livelihood – we’re also working to develop their skills by offering training – So though their pond is destroyed, their training and skills are still with them”

“This was an unexpected disaster which taught us valuable lessons for future planning. Since the fish rearing period is 6 months, the group should keep weather patterns in mind so that harvesting is not affected by adverse weather conditions. It will take some time to recover from the flooding but Urithira and her group are interested in starting again and we should encourage them to restructure with the lessons learnt from the past.”

CARE’s LIFT2 project works in the conflict affected areas in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Rather than taking a traditional emergency type approach of a donor organization by directly providing for needs, LIFT2 focuses on building the capacities of community-based organizations to identify and tackle their own issues through building community solidarity and linking them to various service providers. It does this through a field school approach which not only encourages groups to determine the issues that are important to them, but enables them to directly tackle and advocate on issues.

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