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Aquaponics in Gaza

By Christopher Somerville and Cyril Ferrand

Christopher Somerville holds an MA in Development Studies and has lead on a number of UNFAO urban agriculture projects in Gaza since January 2012, including the project described in this article.

Cyril Ferrand is an agronomist and has worked for the Emergency and Rehabilitation Division of FAO since 1999, previously working with ACF. He covered major humanitarian crisis, including in particular Kosovo, Afghanistan, Southern Sudan and Somalia.

The authors would like to acknowledge the FAO West Bank and Gaza Strip coordination office – and especially the Food Security Unit – for their support and analysis in writing this article.

This exact article has not been previously published but a similar article was published in FAO Aquaculture Newsletter under the title ‘Aquaculture on Rooftops in Gaza’ in December 2012.

Rooftop gardening in Gaza

Gaza’s population has been forced to adapt to their extraordinary circumstances, outlined in the introduction on Gaza (page 10). Chronic food insecurity is comp- ounded by the imposed buffer zone on land and fishing restrictions off the coast have further impeded agricultural efforts to produce enough food locally to fulfil the needs of Gaza’s population. At present, some 5,500 workers rely fully or partially on fishing activities for their livelihood, including about 3,500 fishers and 2,000 workers employed in associated enterprises (boat builders, transporters of fish, etc.)1. Restricted access to the sea in recent years have driven thousands to look for work elsewhere, such as in casual labour or construction.

FAO response

In response to the crisis in Gaza – and in particular, the needs of food insecure female-headed households in urban areas – FAO implemented several small scale urban food production projects in partnership with a number of European donors. Providing food-insecure households with the means and knowledge to grow their own food proved to be a successful way of reducing their vulnerability. FAO’s internal evaluations have shown that activities such as backyard and rooftop gardens (see Box 1), along with small rabbit, chicken and fish units, boost the quality of food consumed by poor households and also provide a modest source of additional income through sales of surplus production. This article focuses on experiences with back yard and rooftop aquaponics in Gaza.

Box 1: Rooftop and home gardens

The FAO’s efforts in the Gaza Strip to support emergency agricultural activities have included provision of rooftop and home gardens and agricultural inputs. The project targets poor and vulnerable families in urban and peri-urban areas through the provision of agricultural inputs and technical support to develop and demonstrate simple household garden and aquaculture systems for vegetable and fish production in Gaza. All beneficiaries received training (animal care, proper use of tools, irrigation systems, crop management, planting times, seedling preparation, fertilization, organic and natural pest control and seedling protection techniques) in order to maximize the use of inputs received.

Backyard gardens

Beneficiaries were provided with backyard garden kits consisting of small ruminants (chicken and rabbits), varieties of high quality vegetable seeds and drip irrigation networks. Through these inputs, beneficiaries were able to increase their household food consumption, as well as generate some income from selling the excess produce and animals.

Rooftop gardens

Rooftop garden kits consisted of inputs for food production including fish tanks and 11cm x 4m PVC pipes for plant production—a form of integrated aquaculture & agriculture developed by local expertise in Gaza. As a result of these inputs, beneficiaries enhanced their household’s access to an important source of animal protein for consumption.

Results

Project beneficiaries reported an increased level of household food consumption, as they are able to produce fresh vegetable and animal produce in their own homes. Also, beneficiaries report that their rooftop and home gardens have provided them with extra income through selling surplus produce at local markets.

Aquaponics pilot

As one of the fastest growing food production sectors, small-scale aquaculture activities have the potential to stabilise livelihoods of poor rural and coastal families in the Gaza Strip. Fish-farming also benefits agriculture, with nutrient-rich water from ponds used to irrigate and fertilise nearby openfield crops, yielding two outputs (both fish and crops to eat and sell) from one input (fish feed). Farmed fish are an inexpensive and highly nutritious food source. Further, sales of fish are carried out by specialised traders, who buy large amounts from the farms and then sell them to local retailers. Transport within the Gaza Strip is relatively unproblematic, and the sale of fish on the local market does not require sophisticated logistics as it can be easily done and regulated according to local needs. The aquaculture ponds themselves are a sustainable source of livelihoods for beneficiaries, established to be used for years to come.

In 2012, through a generous contribution from the Kingdom of Belgium, a follow-up emergency food production initiative was launched which included the pilot of small-scale aquaponic units on rooftops (see Box 2 and Figure 1) and supported by training. Given that access to good agricultural land and water will continue to be a chronic issue within Gaza, aquaponics can serve as an applicable food production option mainly due to efficient water utilisation and easy installation of each production unit (fish and plant) on any flat, urban platform using local low-tech materials.

Box 2: What is aquaponics?

Aquaponics is a sustainable food production system which integrates aquaculture (growing fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) whereby both agricultural practices mutually benefit from each other’s presence in one production unit.

Aquaponics relies on the nitrification process whereby waste from the fish is converted by nitrifying bacteria, which are hosted naturally within the unit, into an organic nutrient solution for the growing vegetables. The vegetables then absorb the nutrients from the water which essentially purifies it as it re-circulates back into the fish tank. Under this production technique, two products (fish and vegetables) can be harvested from only one input. Also, due to the recirculation and recycling of water, aquaponics only requires a fraction of the water needed for traditional soil-based agriculture in the Middle East. See Figure 1.

 

The pilot project was implemented in 2012 and involved 15 beneficiaries in Gaza City who received aquaponics kits. This included a locally-made 1 metre3 fibreglass fish tank, grow beds filled with volcanic gravel, an electric pump, PVC pipes/ fittings and water quality monitoring kits. Other inputs for each unit were given including tilapia fingerlings (a freshwater fish), fish food and enough vegetable seedlings for one growing season. Once assembled, each beneficiary had a fully fledged ‘flood and drain’ aquaponics unit with a 4m2 growing space and a maximum fish stocking density of 20 kg.

Each pilot unit costs $1500-$2000 including the plants required for one season. Maintenance requirements are quite low, largely involving replacing the water pump every 2-3 years; the pump costs between 6-10% of the overall unit cost. All the input costs per year (water, electricity, seedlings, fingerlings, pump depreciation, water test kits), amounts to about half the value of the production per year. So in theory and generally speaking, $1 invested = $2 dollars of production. In terms of output this can vary widely, since new users are encouraged to practice polyculture and grow what they need. Using a simple example, at maximum capacity, one unit could produce 20-25 lettuce heads per week and 35-40 kg of fish per year. As the units are small scale, the production is suitable for individual household consum- ption – households typically have at least 6 people.

The unit design, tailored to adapt to the unique environmental and logistical realities in Gaza, was a marriage of an initial small-scale Integrated Aquaculture Agriculture (IAA) unit locally designed in Gaza with external expertise on aquaponics technology. Although there was initial success when the IAA unit was piloted during the project’s first phase, questions were raised as to whether poor families in Gaza could successfully utilise the new aquaponics units as they demand a higher educational capacity for operation. It was highlighted early on in the project cycle that the training course and materials for each beneficiary needed to be as simple and as accessible as possible to ensure success.

Initial results

The initial 15 rooftop aquaponics units showed some promising results. Most of the beneficiaries exerted considerable effort into the management of their units and most harvested a summer crop that was used for household consumption. For some beneficiaries, it reduced the need to purchase food (such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) in local markets. Others paid less attention to reaching the full production potential of their units and concentrated more on growing some of their favourite herbs and vegetables. Every beneficiary mentioned that they thoroughly enjoyed managing their units. Some were very thankful that they could now grow nutritious and pesticide-free vegetables for their families while others seemed to really appreciate a quiet green space of their own, inside the busy city of Gaza. Individual cases have reflected encouraging outcomes in this new project year (see Box 3 for one example).

Box 3: Aquaponics potential – a case study

Without any formal training and with basic technical support from FAO, Iyad Al Attar, an aquaculturalist based in Beit Lahiya, has transformed his small aquaculture farm by integrating a semi-commercial sized plant production component to his operation. Iyad, who was initially involved with supplying materials and fish to FAO for these emergency food production initiatives, took the basic information on aquaponics he acquired while installing units with FAO staff in Gaza and invested in transforming his livelihood into the largest aquaponics unit in Gaza with his own money. FAO staff are closely monitoring Iyad’s progress and providing technical support whenever possible as this latest development will hopefully shed light on the income generating potential that semi-commercial aquaponic systems can bring to vulnerable farmers in Gaza.

Challenges

Although success stories have been recorded, the initial pilot work encountered obstacles, mostly due to the context-specific challenges presented in Gaza. Households throughout the strip must endure daily power cuts that can easily last up to eight hours or more. This has unfortunately led to fish mortality, particularly during the hot summer months when the capacity for water to hold dissolved oxygen reduces as the water temperature increases above 30 C°.

Rooftop gardening in Gaza

Information received from various project monitoring trips highlighted the existence of some cultural barriers. The idea of growing vegetables without the use of soil has been quite a paradigm shift for some of the beneficiaries, with some still relatively sceptical of the total added value to which soilless culture units can provide. One major lesson learnt in light of this was to implement a complementary public awareness campaign on any new technology, particularly that of aquaponics which is a substantial diversion from traditional agricultural practices. Such campaigns can overcome initial cultural barriers and prevent a potential ‘false start’ syndrome within participating communities.

Future plans

Building on the pilot, the latest project – which started on 1 January 2013 and will be implemented over a 12-month period – will further build on the successful ‘flood and drain’ aquaponics units in Gaza City and its surrounding villages. Roughly 100 new units have been planned for the city, each one costing just over $1000 including the live inputs. This is cheaper per unit compared to the pilot, with FAO having negotiated the best prices from the right suppliers, learning lessons from the pilot.

Other activities include the upgrading of 54 existing beneficiaries’ integrated aquaculture units to aquaponic units. The cost to convert from one to the other is about $300-$400 (price for submersible pump and materials for a bio-filter). Further, emergency inputs, training and technical support will be provided to enable food insecure households located in urban areas and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip to grow vegetables, and stock fish and small ruminants.

As much of the technology utilised in these interventions is still relatively new, any future efforts to scale up the units to a commercial or community level would need to begin on a small-scale. Also, under future interventions, universities and extension service providers in Gaza could be approached to explore and review best practice for aquaponics in the Gaza Strip, possibly introducing new techniques to alleviate some of the problems experienced in the pilot phase. For example, solar power and batterypowered air pumps have the potential to reduce fish mortality caused by low oxygen levels in the fish tanks during summer, although solar panels (requiring also energy convertor + battery) are very expensive at small scale.

The project will continue to focus on female producers offering the means for them to secure fresh, nutritious food and potentially generate a supplemental income for their family.

For more information, contact: Christopher Sommerville, email: Christopher.sommerville@fao.org

Show footnotes

1Number of registered fishermen according to the Palestinian Authority Department of Fisheries.

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Reference this page

Christopher Somerville and Cyril Ferrand (2013). Aquaponics in Gaza. Field Exchange 46: Special focus on urban food security & nutrition, September 2013. p15. www.ennonline.net/fex/46/aquaponics