Photographs by Arati Kumar-Rao
Photographs by Arati Kumar-Rao

Photo essay | Troubled waters

Pushed deep into debt, fisherfolk in South Asia are bearing the brunt of habitat degradation and trans-boundary politics

War makes headlines. But “slow violence"—which is neither graphic nor explosive—remains invisible, inflicted on communities by environmental degradation and climate change. It unfolds over temporal scales, its true implications manifesting only over several generations.

Take, for example, the triple whammy of habitat degradation, commercial overfishing and climate change threatening the survival of fishermen across the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. All along the rivers of South Asia, these artisanal fishermen, who are highly marginalized, are losing out to organized fishing, commercial trawling, and state-sponsored and private aquaculture.

While some of these artisanal fishermen still try their luck in rivers devoid of fish, others are faced with desiccated rivers—the fallout of sometimes vicious trans-boundary river-sharing politics. The Teesta, for example, flows from India into Bangladesh. India built the Teesta Barrage in West Bengal and impounds water during the dry season, leaving northern Bangladesh parched.

Across South Asia, river fishermen pushed deep into debt are being forced to migrate in search of work.

These images are part of an ongoing larger body of work on the issue of trans-boundary river-sharing and the oft-overlooked river fishermen’s rights.

The photographs, taken along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, as well as the lower reaches of the Ganga and the Sundarbans, document the changing fates of fisherfolk, their traditional fishing methods, and the effects of anthropogenic activities on the ecosystem itself.

A fisherman shows us his meagre catch on the banks of the Teesta in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is looking to sign a water-sharing treaty with India that will allow the Teesta to flow again. Currently, the river runs dry for eight months of the year.
A fisherman shows us his meagre catch on the banks of the Teesta in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is looking to sign a water-sharing treaty with India that will allow the Teesta to flow again. Currently, the river runs dry for eight months of the year.
A hilsa dock at Bhola, Bangladesh. Daily wage-workers load dinghies with ice-boxes full of the fish. The 2014 monsoon is said to have been the worst in 35 years.
A hilsa dock at Bhola, Bangladesh. Daily wage-workers load dinghies with ice-boxes full of the fish. The 2014 monsoon is said to have been the worst in 35 years.
Hilsa fishermen pull up a net that had been sitting in the Shela river in the Sundarbans for 7 hours. They netted one fish.
Hilsa fishermen pull up a net that had been sitting in the Shela river in the Sundarbans for 7 hours. They netted one fish.
Tongi-jaal fisherwomen in the wetland paddy fields of Lower Assam.
Tongi-jaal fisherwomen in the wetland paddy fields of Lower Assam.
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