Insight into Nijhum Dwip and their Fishing Community
By Syed Tauheed Raihan
This January Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) went to Nijhim Dwip, a newly formed remote island in the southern most part of Bangladesh. The island developed through sedimentation from the mighty Meghna river and mass migration only started around 1991. This makes the island relatively untouched and the local economy is mostly based around fishing, living in harmony with nature. However, climate change, climate migrants and government development plans seem to be changing it.
The island itself is small, only 39 square kilometres, being oblong in shape. Due to it being so far from the national power grid the only form of electricity is from solar power or diesel generators. Since generators are expensive to run they limit their use to market places and night time uses making the island very eco-friendly. The residents fall under three categories - they were either among the first to migrate with the help of the government around 1991 when they were given land as an incentive to move out to this remote area. The second type of residents is climate migrants who were forced to move when river erosion upstream claimed their homes and land. The last type is entrepreneurs who set up businesses to support the growing population of the island.
There is arable land but being at the mouth of the largest delta in the world, the residents mostly fish. They specifically fish a particular species called Hilsa Hilsa Tenualosa, which has a similar life cycle to that of a North-American Salmon. There are other species caught as well but due to small size of the fishing boats, they have to be economical with the storage. That is why these small scale fisheries focus on the most profitable catch. During the winter months, they switch to “Chewa fish” - the scientific name being Taenioides Cirratus. They sell these at the market or dry them up to increase their value or grind them up for commercial fish feed.
Since the fishing zones are limited there is conflict surrounding it. While we were there a scuffle turned into a bloody brawl when an argument over a local fishing zone boiled over. Since the remote area is not strictly governed the local fishermen had no other option but to settle disputes themselves. The locals did attest to this being a rare event but smaller conflicts are common.
This conflict could be reduced by diversifying their income sources like fish farming in ponds but they cannot do it due to frequent and severe flooding. Flooding is a major issue here on the island as they are subjected to both coastal storms and drainage for terrestrial rain upstream. Since the elevation of the island is practically the same as sea level the flooding can be quite devastating - engulfing the whole island except for some limited high ground. This type of flooding leaves behind a salt residue that makes farmland barren and washes away fish farmed in small ponds. Climate change is increasing the sea level and an island like this is most vulnerable.
Tourism has increased over the last 7 years according to locals and it is a form of supplementary income for the local fishermen. The tourist partakes in buying local goods like palm sap, fish and coconuts; meaning a higher price. The problem with current tourism is that the tourist hires fishing boats outside of the island, as lodging is rare and difficult. The government is trying to remedy this by setting up state-run rest houses. However, increasing tourism can have an adverse effect on the environment as most tourists are not eco-conscious enough to not litter or harm local flora and fauna. There is already a major problem with illegal deforestation because of the lack of usable land and increased tourism will only increase the demand for land, in turn increasing illegal deforestation.
Some development had a positive impact on fisherfolk like having access to mobile networks. This allows them to conduct business over the phone and keep in touch with family while shore fishing. Some more tech-savvy and resourceful fishermen have been using free GPS apps to coordinate their fishing zone to get better catch and decrease territory disputes mentioned earlier.
Nijhim Dwip hosts a rare breed of fishing community who are living in harmony with nature but face problems because of ill-conceived tourist development, climate change, all the while lacking proper governance and policing.