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Nutrition & health

Aquatic resources are essential sources of animal protein in rural diets. While rice provides essential sources of nutrition, growing evidence indicates that living aquatic resources are the main sources of animal protein in rural diets. Very often these diets are deficient of protein sources, and any degradation of aquatic resource systems can be anticipated to have dramatic impacts on the nutritional and health status of rural people. As common property resources, aquatic animals again are of particular importance for the poorer and more vulnerable groups who tend not to have adequate access to private resources. The vast productivity of aquatic resources in the Lower Mekong Basin could not be replaced by aquaculture or livestock, and is dependent on the health of a range of wetland habitats, and processes of flooding and recession. Any degradation of the resource will have significant impacts on the nutritional and health status of rural people.

The assessment of aquatic resources and nutrition carried out in Attapeu is presented in a full report – The Role and Nutritional Value of Aquatic Resources in Livelihoods of Rural People: A Participatory assessment in Attapeu Province, Lao PDR 2003 (FAO: Rome)

The study made some important observations.
Aquatic resources make up the most animal important protein consumed in terms of frequency and quantity. This is extremely significnat, given that the over-all diet is protein-deficient.
Rice and cheaper (bulkier) food items are given priority over protein in local diets. Rice is consumed more frequently and in higher quantities than other types of food, contributing the vast majority of calories consumed.
Time and resources devoted to acquiring aquatic resources are a substantial part of livelihood strategies. This includes both fishing and foraging activities, making and maintaining gears and processing of fish products.
Aquatic resources are a key part of the coping strategy for periods of rice shortage.
Aquatic resources are often sold and bartered, especially the valuable ones and especially when rice is in deficit.
Few coping strategies exist for shortages of aquatic resources. Given their importance in the diet any shortages will have major impacts on people’s well-being.
Local practices lead to poor nutrition during pregnancy and lactation, leading to poorly nourished children. This may then impact them for rest of their lives.
Food security and poverty alleviation strategies must include aquatic resources management.
Community and household factors that affect food behavior have a huge impact on peoples health and nutritional status. Aquatic resources management needs to include elements of education and public health.

Expansion of rice production is likely to have a serious impact on the productivity of the wild aquatic animals – for example, through the reclamation of floodplain habitats particularly dry season refuges, and through the increased use of inputs in rice fields.

At the same time, increased rice production strategies may not reach the poorer people as they are less able to access the land and credit required. Combined with the loss of the wild resources that are so important to their livelihoods, the effects of this strategy may in fact be to increase poverty and vulnerability for poorer people. While there may be benefits for some rural people there is a risk that this will generate further economic stratification.

Increased rice production alone will not meet the nutritional needs of rural people. If the source of animal protein is lost, it will not easily be replaced. While there is clearly a need to increase rice production to address rice shortages this would best be done in a way that does not jeopardise wild aquatic resources and that fits with the needs of poorer people.