Inland fisheries and aquaculture

Many poor rural people rely on inland fisheries and aquaculture (IF/A) as their primary livelihood strategy (figure 1) – especially in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). By providing direct and indirect employment opportunities (in particular for women), income and nutrition, IF/A contributes to increased household resilience and reduced vulnerability to natural hazards and economic uncertainty.

Some authors even refer to the fishery as a ‘bank in the water' (IWMI 2007), because it provides saleable products with relatively low dependence on harvesting seasons, compared with farming.

By supplying, on average, almost 20 per cent of the total animal protein intake of the approximately 607 million inhabitants of SSA – in particular the 417 million in rural areas – fish provide a cornerstone of the region's food security (in line with Millennium Development Goal 1, Target 3: "Halve … the proportion of people who suffer from hunger").

However, in spite of the benefits, the potential of IF/A for rural development and sustainable livelihood interventions is often overlooked by national authorities and international development agencies. The reasons include its often informal, small-scale nature, part-time activity and geographical remoteness. Limited availability of IF/A production and employment data exacerbates this underestimation. The importance of IF/A in poor rural peoples' livelihood strategies is often influenced – other than by available natural endowments – by national institutions and local power structures, which regulate access to water and land in a community.

IFAD strives to take a holistic livelihood approach to fostering an intersectoral management framework, because IF/A is often only one of many livelihood strategies a household may employ. The coherence of water management with IF/A management is often weak, as they are usually located within different government agencies.

IFAD endeavors to meet this challenge of Intersectoral coherence, with pro-poor outcomes, through a gradual process of coordinated, effective and sustainable natural resource governance.

Main challenges

Institutional shortcomings

  • Ineffective and insufficient water and IF/A interface management, with weak national and transboundary stakeholders and actors (e.g. Lake Chad Basin Commission)
  • Unsustainable benefit streams to the most vulnerable poor rural people (e.g. water lease arrangements for women being overturned after project completion)
  • Weak position of IF/A-dependent households in water-access conflicts and/or in competing user rights for water and land resources from agriculture (e.g. irrigation), industry (e.g. processing), livestock, and domestic water (e.g. drinking water), as well as within IF/A (e.g. small-scale versus commercial) – often exacerbated by social marginalization and the ‘open access' nature of most water bodies
  • Insufficient public and private investment in IF/A due to its relatively low visibility in the national economy
  • Inappropriate IF/A institutional and governance arrangements (e.g. no or limited voice in decision-making and management processes for IF/A-dependent households, and in particular women)
  • Centralized management, which hampers participation
  • Seasonality of some inland fisheries, causing temporary, transhumant migration of male inland fishers within and across country borders
  • Food safety issues along the increasingly market-/consumer-led global and national value chain (e.g. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) requirements; product certification).

Human-induced natural resource degradation

  • Pollution from multiple water uses in agriculture (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides), industry (e.g. tannery chemicals, oil spills), urban areas (e.g. wastewater) and aquaculture (e.g. antibiotics, excess nutrients)
  • Population pressure, resulting in overfishing, deterioration of water resources (quality and quantity), and generally reduced accessibility for poor rural people, in particular women
  • Environmental flow modification by infrastructure (e.g. dams, flood control, irrigation channels), putting at risk the timely availability of water for breeding grounds, hatcheries and fish migration
    inappropriate technology (e.g. non-selective gear, poison), disturbing the ecological and biological balance in aquatic habitats and their surroundings and hence increasing the general vulnerability of poor rural people
  • Climate change potential to extend dry seasons and alter the frequency and quantity of precipitation events, leading to increased flooding and changing water temperatures, with negative impacts on biodiversity.

Access to services

  • Access to microfinance for IF/A-related investments – mostly through informal sectors remoteness, which hampers access to education and medical assistance, despite the high incidence of waterborne diseases and – especially in temporary fishing camps – HIV/AIDS in communities dependent on inland fisheries
  • Scarce allocation of resources for water-IF/A interface management research and development (R&D) and lack of knowledge and innovation facilitation networks.

IFAD approaches

Intersectoral management is a relatively new, holistic approach that offers a promising framework for better understanding and pro-poor mobilization of potential development synergies. In IFAD's approach to water, this theme is not central, but is considered a holistic element in strengthening poor rural people's livelihoods and resilience. IFAD investment approaches to water-related interface management take into account the country-specific structures of the rural political economy. In so doing, they support the development of pro-poor, community-based natural resource management (NRM) institutions, which in turn improve farmer-led agriculture, natural resource technologies, and the sharing of knowledge of these achievements.

With regard to gender and water, by creating the necessary enabling environment and using appropriate tools, IFAD seeks to ensure that rural men and women participate in project activities and reap project benefits on an equitable basis.

With regard to IF/A, IFAD envisages a gradual, pragmatic process of coordinated natural resource governance at the operational level. This process strives to mobilize synergies among diverse subsectors in favour of effective pro-poor rural development, in particular through increased economic opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurs, gender equity and enhanced food security. Advocacy for including water-IF/A interface management in international and national development policy tools – such as poverty reduction strategy programmes – will contribute to intersectoral coherence and thus to the embedding of IF/A within the rural economy.

Institutional approaches

  • Advocate for efforts to include IF/A in international and national rural development agendas – to overcome the status of ‘orphan activity' caused by lack of knowledge – and for recognition of water-IF/A interfaces.
  • Endorse integrated cross-sectoral methodologies and approaches (e.g. ecosystem and sustainable livelihoods approaches) that combine technical, commercial, social and institutional aspects in order to develop water management strategies with adaptive mechanisms, preferably along the entire continuum of water uses (e.g. as was done in Mozambique).
  • Strengthen access rights (e.g. Ghana), community-based IF/A management systems (e.g. Bangladesh) and partnerships among uses (e.g. water user groups) where sufficient management capacity exists (and capacity-building and institutional development where it does not).
  • Recognize, value, document and disseminate local knowledge and community perceptions of IF/A production and management approaches (e.g. Nigeria).
  • Improve overall project direction, assistance and guidance, and active internal knowledge-sharing and reporting (e.g. through IFAD's electronic regional newsletters and networks such as FIDAFRIQUE and the Rural Poverty Portal).

Technical approaches

  • Optimize water productivity, for example through IF/A-compatible, complementary production systems such as integrated agriculture/aquaculture (e.g. rice/fish production in South-east Asia) and stock enhancement (i.e. artificial addition of young fish) in inland water bodies.
  • Mainstream environmental assessment procedures and valuation methodologies for environmental services, in particular for environmental flows.
  • Capacity-building, training and promotion of appropriate technologies and innovation (e.g. substitution of the mosquito nets used for fishing with selective gear, e.g. larger mesh-sized nets).
  • Enhance demand-driven processing, trade and marketing of fish and fishery products and IF/A-related services (e.g. the Democratic Republic of the Congo) through improved infrastructure (e.g. market sites), products and technologies (e.g. ice machines), services (e.g. market information systems) and public/private partnerships.

Investment approaches

  • Increase IFAD's investment in IF/A (total ongoing loan portfolio: an estimated USD 256.11 million dedicated to IF/A-relevant activities, including NRM, marketing and aquaculture development).
  • Strengthen partnerships through scaling up and consistency with other donor investment plans to avoid effort duplication and generate synergies, in line with the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (e.g. the Sustainable Fisheries Livelihoods Programme in Benin – funded by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) ).
  • Establish community funds for demand-driven aquaculture development – from production to marketing – to enhance sustainability, ownership, participation, and equal distribution of benefits among small-scale operators (e.g. Nigeria).
  • Improve documentation, R&D and knowledge management on IFAD's role in rural development and poverty alleviation in order to help develop future resource allocation strategies, strengthen the voice of IF/A households (e.g. Benin) and act as their advocate.

IFAD case study

Benin: Participatory Artisanal Fisheries Development Support Programme (2003-2011)

This IFAD project specifically targets some of the main challenges in inland and coastal fisheries in SSA: water resource deterioration and overfishing, caused by inadequate NRM, and lack of alternative employment activities for an increasing number of IF-dependent households.


A sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA) combined with community-based NRM (IFAD was the first agency to scale up SLA, introduced into the region by DFID/FAO):

  • Participatory analyses, including participatory action research for direct decision-making by local communities on the rehabilitation/management of water resources
  • External technical expertise, stimulating discussion and feasibility analyses;
    incentive-driven processes, tying availability of community funds to proven commitments to sustainable NRM;
  • Environmental action plan and local fisheries code.

Water-IF interface-related activities (direct and indirect)

  • Rehabilitation of water resources, including reforestation
  • Support for development of sustainable community-based NRM (with fisheries playing a key but not exclusive role) through capacity-building, training, infrastructure improvement and institutional support
  • Promotion of fish trade and marketing and alternative employment activities within communities (in particular, rabbit breeding, processing and marketing) and their related water uses
  • Community funding for social infrastructure, including water supply

Expected results

  • Enhanced productivity of inland and coastal waters and surrounding habitats through restocking and better community-based NRM
  • Livelihood improvement through increased access to microcredit and alternative employment activities (fish farming, small-animal husbandry, vegetable-growing, crafts).

Topic sheet author: Nicole Franz 

Peer reviewed by:  FAO, WorldFish Center


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