Climate Change, Pollution Push Karnaphuli Fishers Out of the Profession

Jishuram Das has been catching fish from the Karnaphuli River since his childhood. Nowadays, he often sits idle after drastic fall of fish in the river due to pollution and salinity intrusion. Credit: Rafiqul Islam/IPS
Jishuram Das has been catching fish from the Karnaphuli River since his childhood. Nowadays, he often sits idle after drastic fall of fish in the river due to pollution and salinity intrusion. Credit: Rafiqul Islam/IPS
  • by Rafiqul Islam (chattogram, bangladesh,)
  • Inter Press Service

“Once there were plenty of fish in the Karnaphuli River, where we caught fish generation after generation. But, in recent years, salinity has entered the river water, driving the freshwater fish species to disappear, which makes our lives harder,” Jishuram said.

Recalling the days when fishermen were able to catch enough fish from the river about 10 to 12 years ago and earn handsome money by selling their catches, Jishuram said nowadays he can catch merely half a kilogram of fish in a day and many days even he has to return home empty-handed.

“My son and I used to catch fish together from the Karnaphuli River. As we cannot catch enough fish from the river for our living, I am not taking my son fishing. I asked my only son to find an alternative livelihood. Now he has been working at a factory so that he can support my family,” he said.

The seasoned fisherman said, as he does not know any other work, he still continues their traditional fishing despite the drastic fall of fish in the river.

“But many have already changed their livelihoods for a better life,” he told IPS.

Gopal Das (55), who learned fishing from his father, said when he was young, he caught big fish from the river by fishhook. But now he could not catch a single fish in a whole day as big fish have disappeared from the river due to unchecked pollution, he said.

“In the past, I caught big fish like rui (rohu fish), catla, chitol (chitala chitala), and boal (wallago fish), weighting 15-20 kg, from the river, but these are not found there right now. We can now catch only three or four sea fish species, including shrimp and poya fish; the river has become salty,” Gopal said.

The families of fishermen in Karnaphuli struggle to make a living and feed their families, and many have fallen into a debt trap.

Gopal, a fisherman living in Jelepara, said, “We have fallen into economic hardship. I borrowed Taka 30,000 (nearly USD 300) from a microcredit organization, and now I am repaying the loan. Like me, many others in our locality get trapped in the circle of debt.”

Gopal has changed professions and now works as an assistant to a mason.

“So, we are not taking our children to fishing boats anymore. We are sending our children to educational institutions so that they can choose other professions except fishing after completing their studies,” he added.

The younger generation of Jelepara has left their time-honored way of life.

“I caught fish from the Karnaphuli River but now I am working as a shopkeeper.  There is a scarcity of fish in the river, so I have chosen another work. The young generation is not interested in fishing and that’s why they are looking for jobs or other work,” Soman Das (28) told IPS.

Md Sarowar Hossain Khan, town manager of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said they have been providing training to young fishermen on livelihood options under its Livelihood Improvement of Urban Poor Communities (LIUPC) Project so that they can find suitable professions.

“Young people in Jelepara have been given training on driving and ready made garment (RMG) work, while many of them have already switched to these from fishing,” he said.

A 2016 study revealed that salinity and dissolved oxygen (DO) were the two most important variables shaping the species makeup in the Karnaphuli River estuary. Species diversity was low as the river estuary is highly polluted due to industrial pollution and the high discharge of polluted material from oil tankers, fertilizer factories, and Chattogram City Corporation.

Earlier in March 2024, various species of fish and aquatic animals died in the Karnaphuli River due to melted raw sugar burned in a fire at a warehouse in Chattogram. The burnt sugar fell to the river, declining its water quality, leading to various fish species dying.

“Fish stock in the Karnaphuli River has drastically declined due to overfishing and unchecked water pollution,” Dr Mohammed Shahidul Alam, Associate Professor of the Fisheries Department at the University of Chittagong, told IPS.

Factories and tanneries located on the banks of Karnaphuli have been discharging chemical waste into the river, destroying the habitat of aquatic species, he said, adding that climate change-induced salinity is also contributing to the rapid decline of freshwater fish species in the river.

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