Combining rice cultivation with fisheries is an ancient practice but its reintroduction promises to transform the productivity, resilience and health of modern-day rice producers.
Although the Green Revolution brought about a significant increase in productivity, it came at a huge environmental cost. In many places the practices it introduced have now reached the point of diminishing returns, prompting an urgent rethink. For agriculture – and irrigated agriculture in particular – this means shifting away from a singular focus on maximizing crop yields and adopting more holistic approaches that maintain productivity while simultaneously protecting biodiversity, supporting ecosystems, strengthening nutritional security and building community resilience.
Cultivating rice and fish in the same field is a promising approach. This centuries-old practice, sidelined in recent decades by the rice monoculture that agricultural policies in Asia have favored, involves the management of either wild or introduced fish species. Integrating fish within irrigated rice production systems can bring multiple benefits: fish help fertilize rice, control pests and contribute to both food and nutritional security. The practice also makes efficient use of scarce water and land resources and generates more income per hectare than rice monoculture – through the sale of fish and the reduced need for chemicals and other inputs.
Research over several years by WLE and its partners, including WorldFish and the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems, has helped refine management practices and promote the use of technologies that enhance water management and better integrate fish in irrigation systems. These include fish passes, fish-friendly sluice gates and ‘refuge ponds’ that fish retreat to when water levels drop too low.
WLE recently consolidated its experience in a set of guidelines – published jointly with WorldFish and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – that outline proven technologies, practices, governance models and actionable steps countries can adopt to implement and optimize rice-fish production systems. These include:
- Understanding the context: Confirm what available fish species require in terms of water resources and aquatic ecosystem health, and determine how fish are already impacted by irrigation schemes to inform new irrigation scheme designs.
- Engaging communities: Work through water user associations to ensure local people contribute to decision making, provide scientific evidence so communities can make informed choices, and support community innovation to ensure solutions are tailored to local contexts and objectives.
- Applying an agro-ecological lens: Identify production practices that support a shift away from rice monoculture, and adjust monitoring and evaluation frameworks so they reflect not only production but also nutrition, equity and environmental priorities.
- Integrating fisheries from the outset: Ensure that fisheries are included during project planning to prevent or mitigate negative impacts and enhance fisheries without undermining an irrigation scheme’s primary purpose.
- Strategically promoting benefits: Demonstrate the benefits of rice-fish production, ensure that decision makers understand the tradeoffs, and challenge the conventional thinking of farmers and irrigation scheme managers, who often view fisheries as a hindrance rather than a benefit.
- Building capacity: Equip communities with the knowledge and skills to cope with evolving challenges during the implementation period, and ensure farmers can manage water and fish stocks effectively and successfully maintain and operate associated technologies.
- Enhancing governance: Put in place governance arrangements that support equitable access and ensure that local people – particularly the most marginalized – benefit from fisheries.
Rice-fish production systems continue to be overlooked in favor of rice monoculture. But there are encouraging signs that the approach is beginning to gain traction as many recognize the unsustainable nature of current irrigation systems over the long term. Major donors such as the Asian Development Bank and several Asian countries are modernizing irrigation schemes – and this includes technologies that promote fisheries. Building on this growing momentum will require further research and a more reliable evidence base, particularly at the landscape level, so natural resource managers can better understand fish movements and water flows across entire watersheds, provide more informed predictions and build confidence in this promising practice.