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June 21, 2020

Vanishing freshwater lakes leave lotus farmers stranded

HYDERABAD: Ramzan Mallah, fishermen community activist from famous Baqar Village near Chotiari reservoir, Sanghar district, still recalls the happy days of the past when they saw swathes of lotus leaves and flowers floating on freshwater lakes, which they cooked fondly for consumption.

Those lakes had the perfect depth for lotus seeds to thrive and grow naturally. People used to flock to the lakeside to view the flourishing flowers on the surface of the water.

Now, those views have disappeared due to land degradation, increasing soil infertility, and water contamination. “The demand however of the lotus root still exists,” he said.

A huge complex of freshwater lakes connected with Nara Canal used to produce lotus roots and a variety of other water vegetables, which provided the fishing communities with an extra source of income.

“Since the development of Chotiari reservoir, we have lost these precious wild foods that grow under water, which the community accessed free of cost,” Mallah said.

He said there were still some parts near the Nara Canal in the Sanghar district where people collected lotus for their consumption as well as to sell some at the local markets. Fishermen used to catch fish, and simultaneously harvest some lotus.

Locally known as beh, lotus is among precious water vegetables, which have value in local as well as urban markets. It is considered healthy, delicious, and an organic vegetable, free of contaminants that are needed to grow commercial vegetable varieties.

Noor Thahimor, another fishermen activist from Jati, Sujawal district said, “We have fertile zones to produce a variety of water vegetables, including lotus roots. Presently, it is also available at low quantity in Jati and other coastal towns at Rs50-Rs80/kg, depending on quality.”

In fishing villages, beh is cooked for breakfast in “pakora” form, used in fish curry, and even in biryani. Its roots, flowers, and leaves are also eaten raw, as people believe it has medicinal value. It is said that lotus boosts immunity and aids in weight management, besides giving relief from stress, headache, benefiting skin, hair and eyes and protection against cardio-related diseases.

Sujawal district has 162 freshwater lakes, registered with the provincial government, that have degraded due to many reasons, mainly cyclones, increasing sea level, and non-availability of freshwater in irrigation canals to feed the water bodies that is essential for maintaining the ecosystem.

Officially, there 1,209 freshwater bodies registered with the provincial government, many of which also provided vegetation for artisans, besides producing water vegetables.

Now, almost all these freshwater bodies are either under seawater in Sujawal district or have been cut-off from the feeding source, making it impossible to produce vegetables, Thahimor said.

Gulab Shah from Keti Bunder coastal area, Thatta district said it was long time ago when there were freshwater bodies, which besides fish also produced water vegetables, including lotus roots. “Now we see these products occasionally when some people harvest those from private fish ponds nearby,” he added.

The information gathered from different areas shows that after degradation of freshwater bodies, some farmers in Dadu, Jamshoro, Larkana and Qambar-Shahdadkot districts have started cultivating lotus for the market. It is a water intensive plant, and mostly farmers cultivate it at natural ponds.

These days however their problems have multiplied because of the lockdown to combat the new coronavirus pandemic.

The lotus flower is considered the most unique among all the plants in the world. Similarly, its seed and roots have value in different countries. Thus, the lotus can also be produced for export by motivating farmers and providing some incentives to them.

In local weddings, lotus roots are also cooked for vegetarian guests and these dishes are part of popular menus at wedding halls and private functions.

Badin was also home to famous freshwater lakes, which used to produce these water vegetables, besides a variety of fish. Now almost all the lakes have either been declared dead due to receiving chemical and industrial waste or are on the brink of survival.

The price of lotus roots in the retail market range from Rs80-Rs150/kg depending on the area. Farmers and shopkeepers put mud, and continue sprinkling the produce with water to keep it fresh for two-three days.

Altaf Mahesar, leading farmers network in Dadu district, said now many small-scale farmers cultivate lotus roots in some parts in the district and earn Rs50,000-Rs60,000/acre. But, he said they faced water scarcity, as the crop was water intensive.

Presently, due to lockdown the farmers as well as traders were facing trouble in making this product available in the urban markets like Karachi.

He said large lakes like Manchhar and Hamal were popular for producing lotus roots and other water vegetables. Also, hundreds of artisans used to live along these water bodies to access free of cost vegetation for weaving baskets and other items for the market.

Now there is neither vegetation nor water vegetables that used to provide a means of livelihoods to the local communities, he added.

Researchers in agriculture and food security believe that the important lotus flowers were disappearing, which otherwise could produce roots for human consumption and benefit traders.

Farmers said lotus usually comes to the market on a larger scale in winter – November to March – as flowering season begins in early September.