Sri Lanka Natural Resources: Freshwater Fishing in Rural Areas Boosts Development

A community-based program to revive fresh-water fishing in rural Sri Lanka has helped the poor achieve self-sufficiency, while providing them with useful skills and knowledge-based training.


Fast Facts

70% (1995)
Beneficiaries’ houses built with mud walls and thatched roofs
16% (2011)
Target population live in houses built with mud walls and thatched roofs
16% (1995-2011)
Rise in motorcycle ownership among the target population
78% (1995)
Target population reliant on moneylenders
17% (2011)
Target population reliant on moneylenders
75% (1995-2011)
Rise in three-wheeler ownership among the target population

Source: Sri Lanka: Aquatic Resource Development and Quality Improvement Project. Project Completion Report (2011).


AMPARA, Sri Lanka—One look at his living room—where medals, trophies, exquisite ceramics, and electronic goods take pride of place—and you can see that this Sri Lankan fisherman has struck gold. UDK Jayaratne, 53, credits his financial security to a switch from marine fishing to inland fishing 15 years ago.

Times for inland fishers were tougher back then. Before ADB approved the $20.0 million loan for the Aquatic Resource Development and Quality Improvement Project, state support had run dry for the inland fisheries sector and related infrastructure had fallen into disrepair.

At the same time, the Government of Sri Lanka also projected that Sri Lanka’s demand for fish, in both urban and rural markets, would grow, and that inland fish production would be crucial to meeting that demand.

To help revive the inland fisheries sector, the project provided fish seed to restock reservoirs and aquaculture farms. It trained extension staff, provided industry outreach, and supplied financing for rehabilitating decrepit infrastructure.

That has meant both tangible and intangible dividends for Jayaratne and others who fish at the Ampara Reservoir.

“In the past, a fisherman had no social standing in our village. But now that many of us are earning good money, a fisherman is treated with respect,” says Jayaratne, who owns a bicycle, a motorbike, and a three-wheeled motorized tuk tuk.

Community spirit

The project helped some of the poorer segments of rural Sri Lanka establish fishing societies, enabling them to work together to develop and manage aquatic resources, enhance food security, support small-scale entrepreneurs, and foster public–private partnership programs.

To join a local fishing society, a new member pays a modest SLRs100 ($0.75) entrance fee, and a joining fee of around SLRs1,000 ($7.50). A 5% portion of daily earnings goes into a savings book. In return, the fishing society patrols the reservoir, sets the selling price for fish, and donates funds for the welfare of members.

“The project is structured as a community based organization, where members—some of the poorest families in Sri Lanka—share knowledge, take up responsibilities, and learn about the importance of having savings,” says KBC Pushpalatha, director of the National Aquaculture Development Authority. She has been engaging with fishing communities since the project began in 2003.

Apart from financial assistance, Jayaratne and thousands of other local fishermen have received formal training on inland fisheries as well as on leadership and management skills through the National Aquaculture Development Authority, which continues to monitor the project 2 years after it was completed in 2010.

Saving and investing for the future

Today, Jayaratne the owner of a modest four bedroom house says “in some seasons, fishermen have the capacity to earn more than SLR 180,000 ($1369) a month.’’ He notes that saving is very important.

Learning how to save money—mandated by the fishing societies—has been instrumental in helping fishermen like Jayaratne provide for his family.

“I built my house, educated my children, furnished my home and bought electronic goods from my fishing earnings.”

—UDK Jayaratne, fisherman

“I began to save because the fishing society says we have to set aside part of our daily earnings,” says Jayaratne.

His earnings are managed by his wife, Janaki Premathilake, who runs the household, and looks after the family’s four children. One son is a graduate in information technology; another has secured a place in the national youth football team.

“I built my house, educated my children, furnished my home, and bought electronic goods from my fishing earnings,” Jayaratne says.

Fellow fisherman, 45-year-old Ajith Pushpakumara has schooled his children, given away both his daughters in marriage, and is the proud owner of 2.4-hectare rice field, thanks to bountiful catches every night.

“I now own a car, a motorcycle, a lorry, and a paddy crusher, in addition to building a new house and furnishing it,” says the betel-chewing Pushpakumara, who earns over SLRs80,000 ($600) a month. “Inland fishing, if done properly, is a profitable business.”

Before the project was implemented, 70% of beneficiaries’ houses were built with mud walls and thatched roofs. Today, only 16% of the target population live in such housing. Among the beneficiaries, motorcycle ownership has risen by 16% and three-wheeler ownership by 75%. There has been a 32% increase in the use of fiberglass boats.

Surveys also show that beneficiaries’ dependence on moneylenders dropped to 17% at the end of the project period, from 78% at commencement, thanks to the community-based organizations.

Reviving an historic industry

Some 380 families engage in fishing on the shores of the Senanayake Reservoir in the Ampara district, which forms part of an ancient irrigation scheme that was fished successfully in the past.

In 2011, inland fisheries were the source of 14% of Sri Lanka’s total fish catch, compared to just 4% in 1995, according to figures by the National Aquaculture Development Authority.

While not part of the original plans, the project was able to provide financing for a new fish market to replace the dilapidated market in Colombo. This has led to beneficial changes in fish storage, sales, and transport.

As a result of these direct benefits, the project has created dozens of small-scale entrepreneurs who clean and sell fish, and also sell gear, food, and drinks to fishermen.

 As the Sri Lankan marine fisheries sector is compelled to operate further away from the island, and with the corresponding impact on fish prices, freshwater fish is expected to fill an important nutritional role for inland rural communities.

Profits for all

“This inland fisheries project was successful because we did not only teach people how to fish, but helped revive the inland fisheries industry, created sustainable markets, encouraged entrepreneurship, and developed people’s skills.”

— KBC Pushpalatha, director, National Aquaculture Development Authority

The loan project had a spin-off grant-funded project targeting women from 15 women’s subcommittees of the inland fisheries societies, in six districts. The project trained 144 women, selected through a rigorous screening process, in business development and other targeted skills.  After they developed business plans, the total sum required by each subcommittee was given to the fisheries society, which purchased the material and equipment for small home-based enterprises. Through this initiative, 25 women in the fishing village of Hambegamuwa were selected from the subcommittee and received materials or equipment worth Rs.15,000 ($115) each. They have invested in poultry, knitted clothes, cooked foods, spices, and even an herbal medicine store, starting small businesses to supplement family incomes.

These women also established a small microcredit unit, with each paying SLRs1,000 ($7.50) a month to launch a revolving fund, which has now been extended to the 45 women in the subcommittee.

 “This inland fisheries project was successful because we did not only teach people how to fish, but helped revive the inland fisheries industry, created sustainable markets, encouraged entrepreneurship, and developed people’s skills,” says the National Aquaculture Development Authority’s Pushpalatha.

As a result of increasing incomes, the project put some of the poorest people in the fishing industry on the path to personal economic growth.

“Through the help of various government agencies, and private sector partnerships, the inland fisheries project has made some of the poorest people …rich enough to tap banks to develop their businesses or improve their lives further,” Pushpalatha says.