How climate change is breaking families in fishing communities

Fishermen operating on Lake Victoria land their catch in Geita Region.

What you need to know:

  • According to FAO (2021), climate change is predicted to reduce fish catches by 7.7 percent and shrink revenues from them by 10.4 percent by 2050 under a high CO2 emissions scenario

Ukerewe. She did not hesitate when her husband told her that he was moving to another fishing island in Bukoba to trap fish to make a living for their children.

 In fact, she really supported the idea because she believed that when he went to Bukoba, he would be able to catch more fish, sell it, and send money here for the upkeep of the children. But things turned out differently.

“Unlike in the past, when we usually used to have at least two meals a day, nowadays it is normal for us to go to bed on empty stomachs,” she says.

These are the words of Taikile Kamirwa (37)—a mother of five children who has been left by her husband since 2017.

 Ms Tamirwa, a resident of Murutunguru, Ukerewe District, Mwanza Region, stressed that for the past six years since her husband left her, she has never received any financial support from him.

She told The Citizen recently that she regretted her husband going to Bukoba because the idea has not borne any fruit but has brought pain and separated the family.

When a new day comes, I normally ask for God’s intervention to see me through so that I can find food for my children. Ms Kamirwa is not alone in this; there are other women who face the same experience.

Another one, Ms Sara Bigambo (25)—a mother of five children—was left by her husband when she was four months pregnant, and now she has already given birth to a baby boy. She explained that due to a lack of fish on Nansio Island, her husband started going to Irugwa Island, which is situated within the Ukerewe District. Her husband used to go and come back home.

But as time went on, he started spending up to four days or a week without returning home. That did not bother her because she knew that her husband was working hard for the family. It is unfortunate, however, that since June last year, her husband has not returned home.

“My husband used to make phone calls on a regular basis to ask how the children were doing, and sometimes he could send money. But now he neither calls nor sends money,” she recalls. She explains further that sometimes when she tries to make a phone call to her husband, the phone rings without him answering. And no call is returned.

So one day she decided to follow up through her husband’s friend, and she was told that her husband had already married another woman in Irugwa. To help women deal with the emotions and trauma of being left alone to fend for their children, some well-wishers decided to form a group called Mwanzo Mgumu (a difficult start).

Sixctemedia Katambo (58) said that they decided to establish Mwanzo Mgumu in 2010 after discovering that most women were left alone to look after the children. She said: “In most circumstances, women play a big role in raising children, and their group does not only focus on women who have been left by their fishermen husbands; it also includes widows, old women, and those who want to get rid of poverty. Through our group, we grow nutritious potatoes (viazi lishe); after harvesting, we dry the product, grind it, put it in packets, and sell it.”

Also, they use the potato leaves as relish. Climate change, which has caused drought in most parts of the country, has affected a number of Ukerewe residents, with most of the men who relied on cassava and fishing as a source of income abandoning their families to look for greener pastures.

“Most households in Ukerewe have been left in the hands of women who are currently looking after the children, though it is becoming difficult for them to provide food for children as most of them have many children,” says Sauti ya Wanawake Ukerewe (SAWAU) general manager Ms Sophia Donald. According to her, most women spend much of their time on childbearing and household activities.

The large number of children per family also means they fail to participate in economic issues. She added that most men have left their families, with their children ending up employed in restaurants and bars.

A counsellor on Ukara Island, Ms Experancia Mtatuzi, said that in recent years, the availability of fish and dagaa (sardines) has been a challenge, thus making a number of men shift from one island to another.

She explained that Ukerewe District has 38 islands, and almost 90 percent of its area is covered by water. She said, adding that this is an indication that most activities conducted here involve fishing, and naturally, men here are fishermen.

So, whenever there is inaccessibility or a lack of fish on a certain island, men tend to move to other islands. The issue of climate change is not only about adaptation, mitigation, and other related issues; it is a serious issue that needs a joint effort to change the mindset of people because climate change has also changed their behaviour.

According to her, it is painful that most children here are now looking after themselves because their mothers are also trying to look for some work so that they can work, get paid, and buy food for the children.

A fisherman who moved from Ukerewe on Ukara Island to the Kagera Region told The Citizen that he decided to shift to Kagera because in Ukara there are no fish. Mr Karuganda noted that even in Kagera there are no fish, adding that he was planning to go back to Ukara Island in Ukerewe to try to start afresh.

According to the Legal Human Rights Centre’s report titled Impact of Climate Change on Social-Economic and Environmental Rights in Tanzania, fishermen in study areas, particularly in the Coastal Region (Mafia and Bagamoyo) and Mwanza (Ukerewe), reported experiencing impacts of climate change in their fishing industry.

Although most of them did not directly perceive the impacts of phenomena such as sea-level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, and changes in salinity as climate change, they were aware of and concerned with associated trends.

They noted a reduction in fisheries production over the years (84.5 percent of respondents), alteration of places with fish abundance, for example, a decrease in coral reefs (45.2 percent), the disappearance or vulnerability of fish species due to increased aquaculture diseases (34.5 percent), and unpredictable rainfall (35.7 percent).

Fishermen further noted the impacts of climate change, including the migration of fish to deep waters as well as increased incidences of bad weather conditions (i.e., frequent strong episodes of winds and storms) that have made fishing a very risky endeavour (88 of the respondents).

In turn, these trends have led to reduced fish catch, diets, and income for hundreds of thousands of locals who depend on the sea and lakes for food and income. Consequently, these trends have compromised a number of fundamental human rights attached to the fisheries sector.

According to FAO (2021), climate change is predicted to reduce fish catches by 7.7 percent and shrink revenues from them by 10.4 percent by 2050 under a high CO2 emissions scenario.

It further notes that this decrease in the catch may be as much of a drop as 26 percent in some parts of West Africa and could be even higher in other parts of Africa where countries are closer to the equator.

This story has been funded by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation