Fani Llauradó/WorldFish

How rice field fisheries are netting nutrition gains in Cambodia

A challenge faced by many caregivers in rural Cambodia is making sure their children get enough nutritious food. An integrated approach is leveraging rice field fisheries to address multiple causes of malnutrition.

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Missing out on nutritious food at a young age can have long-term impacts on physical and cognitive development, and can increase the risk of poor health as an adult. Acute malnutrition, stunting and micronutrient deficiencies have been estimated to cost Cambodia up to USD 266 million annually, or 1.7 percent of GDP. 

Through the USAID-funded Feed the Future Cambodia Rice Field Fisheries II (RFF II) project, FISH is working to address multiple causes of malnutrition in a joined-up way. The project promotes wild fish conservation and improved management of 140 community fish refuges (CFRs), making more nutritious fish available to be caught in the surrounding areas.

Fish is one of the best sources of nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin A, which are essential for healthy growth and development.  

Feed the Future Cambodia - Rice Field Fisheries Phase II.

Improving fish productivity in rice fields

CFRs are natural or humanmade ponds that hold water throughout the year and provide a dry season refuge for brood fish. In the dry season, these refuges become disconnected from permanent natural water bodies. In the wet season, when water levels rise, the fish migrate out of the CFRs to the rice fields and floodplains to spawn and feed.

Fishing is prohibited year-round in the CFRs, but rice fields become open access fishing grounds when inundated. These fisheries contribute up to 28 percent of the wild capture fisheries in Cambodia and are seen as a promising sub-sector to increase fish catches and meet the domestic demand for food.

Despite their importance to Cambodia’s rural livelihoods, rice field fishery systems were largely neglected as a focus of detailed research until the advent of the CFR approach. WorldFish research shows that CFRs, with better management, can significantly improve fish productivity of the rice field environment as soon as one year after the intervention.

Due to their accessibility to many nearby households, these improved environments are an important source of nutritious food. They are particularly beneficial for lactating mothers and other caregivers who experience poverty and vulnerability.

Integrated approach to food and nutrition security

Phally Siev from Otamoan CFR, Siem Reap, is a widow and fulltime caregiver for her two grandchildren aged three and five. She catches small fish from a nearby pond in an area supported by the project. Following guidance by project staff, these small fish are eaten whole—including the nutritious head and organs—or turned into fish powder

To maximize nutrition outcomes, especially for babies and young children, the project supports caregivers to adopt better sanitation, hygiene and feeding practices. In addition, the project encourages organic vegetable production in homestead gardens, and has introduced community-scale, locally operated clean drinking water stations. 

Feed the Future Cambodia - Rice Field Fisheries Phase II.

Phally says her grandchildren love meals that include the fish powder. “After one year of eating small nutritious fish and the organic vegetables I’ve grown myself, I can definitely say that my two young grandchildren are healthier—they have no problem with diarrhea at all.” 

Studies by nutritionists have shown that 15 grams of this powder supplies 94 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of protein, half the RDI for zinc and the full daily requirement for vitamin B12 and calcium.

Phally Siev feeds her three-year-old grandchild a powder made from nutritious small fish. Photo by Mith Samonn.

WorldFish monitoring shows that people supported by the project are applying good practices to conserve and increase fish stocks and improve nutrition. In one year, the amount of fish caught has increased by 30 percent, and the proportion of children under five eating small fish has increased by 50 percent. 

Families also sell their surplus harvests, generating additional income that can be spent on other food items, medicines and their children’s education. 

By 2021, more than 296,000 people are expected to have benefited from the project’s integrated approach to improving food and nutrition security.