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Fishing in the field

Besides rivers, Central Asia has more than 300 000 km of irrigation canals, and they have vast fisheries potential. But the irrigation system makes it hard for fish to grow. Now FAO has brought together irrigation and fisheries experts to find ways of making it easier.


An irrigation pumping station in the People's Republic of China, one of the countries that shared its expertise in the Almaty expert consultation. (FAO/20043)


It's rough being a freshwater fish in Central Asia.

When you're young, there's a 90 percent chance that you'll end up swimming into irrigation water and die a dusty death in the cotton fields -- even if you were raised in a river. Or you might be eaten by predators, poisoned by agrochemicals or saline water, taken by poachers or washed over a dam into a swamp or a river -- and if you aren't a riverine species, that's bad. Worst of all, someone may drain all the best places just when you're trying to spawn or when eggs should be developing -- and then the eggs and young die.

In fact, you need friends.

This autumn, FAO brought some of them together in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for an "Expert consultation on the use of irrigation systems for sustainable fish production in arid countries of Asia". They came from China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey and Uzbekistan. Organized with the Kazakhstan Scientific Research Institute of Fisheries, the Expert Consultation broke new ground by including both fisheries and irrigation specialists.

The fish they discussed are not farmed -- they live in the region's reservoirs, irrigation canals and rivers. But there is restocking for fisheries purposes, so there is management.

"Aspects of fish production have rarely been given high consideration in irrigation engineering," says FAO inland fisheries expert Gerd Marmulla. "But fish are a marvellous source of protein, and some species prey on disease vectors such as snails and insect larvae, reducing incidence of waterborne diseases."

The consultation also included participation by the Interstate Commission for Water Co-ordination (ICWC). This was set up in 1992 by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (where it is based) to coordinate water management in the Aral Sea basin.

The five ICWC member states have between them 47 750 km of inter-farm irrigation canals, and 268 600 km on-farm; and the 80 dam reservoirs of the Aral Sea catchment have a capacity of more than 100 million cubic metres. There is huge potential for fisheries. Some is used; in Uzbekistan, for example, floodplain lakes and 7 out of the 20 reservoirs have fisheries, and management measures are planned to improve yields.

But many factors affect productivity, including frequent imbalance between native species and competing introduced fish, and water salinity, which affects freshwater fish. Pollution from fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides has declined recently because farmers cannot always afford them, but they remain a threat.

And irrigation structures are just not designed for fish. They can swim unobstructed into the canals, or be sucked out of rivers by the pumping stations. In Uzbekistan in mid-May each year, up to 5 million juvenile fish end up on the fields with the irrigation water.

Moreover, there are new challenges following the break-up of the Soviet Union, which has disrupted management. Private enterprise lacks capital to fill the gap; and while governments still produce fish for stocking reservoirs, the privatized fisheries face hard competition from poaching. In much of the region, officially reported fish catches dropped significantly during the 1990s.

"Fisheries experts in the region have been working to address the decline," says Mr Marmulla. "But, until recently, they were relatively isolated from the global scientific community."

 An integrated approach

The expert consultation demonstrated the value of bringing together different disciplines. For example, an irrigation specialist raised the question of fish loss over dam spillways and called for fish passes ("staircases" for fish to climb back up leap by leap). And the ICWC representative suggested that his organization might be able to take on a training role including fisheries aspects.


A dam and lake in Turkey, a country which has experience in evaluating the restocking of reservoirs. It can pass that experience on to the Central Asian countries. (FAO/22466/R.Messori)


Moreover individual countries sometimes have unique expertise, such as Syria (managing active irrigation canals -- those that always contain water -- for fish production), Pakistan (ponding seepage water from an irrigation canal for aquaculture), and India and Turkey (evaluation of reservoir restocking).

The Almaty meeting highlighted all this. Its report also said that:

  • There should be a regional review of fisheries in irrigation and drainage canals.
  • To restock indigenous fish species more successfully, their behaviour must be better understood; and countries should encourage artificial breeding technologies for them.
  • Irrigation canals could help in rehabilitating sturgeon stocks in the Caspian Sea.
  • Study is needed of the potential of drainage canals and the large bodies of water that form from the water drained from irrigated fields.
  • More efficient use of water for agriculture would help maintain water levels. The meeting recommended that FAO come up with guidelines on this for the arid zone of Asia.

There were also recommendations for strengthening training in fisheries management, both within the region -- where the ICWC and national institutions would have roles to play -- and outside it.

"The Almaty meeting established new levels of cooperation across frontiers and disciplines," says Mr Marmulla. "By breaking those barriers, we'll put more fish on the plates of Central Asia."

12 December 2001


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