Dinner on the roof

Urban aquaponic systems have proven to be successful in providing an environmentally sustainable solution to ensure food and nutrition security and to protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable.

Eman Nofal collects vegetables from her rooftop garden [FAO/M. El Shattali]

In the Gaza Strip, families are struggling to put food on the table every day. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with 4,073 capita per square kilometre. Traditionally dependant on agriculture and fisheries, today, the local population has limited access to agricultural land and fishing areas, due to the ongoing conflict.

Additionally, the blockade imposed in June 2007 has caused food prices to soar and prevents imports of basic inputs for food production, such as seeds, water pumps, fishing nets, spare engine parts and veterinary drugs.  In 2011, half of the population was reported as food insecure, with an average of one breadwinner for every 10 people, and children being exposed to rising levels of acute malnutrition and stunted growth. Environmental challenges, such as water shortages, have made the life of Gaza’s inhabitants even more precarious.

In July 2010, FAO launched a project to improve the food security of families, with the support of the Kingdom of Belgium. Four women’s associations and a local NGO - Palestine Tomorrow for Social Development (PTSD) - worked jointly with FAO to support vulnerable urban families, mostly female-headed, to setup small sustainable food production activities, in order to combat poverty and malnutrition and reach self-sufficiency.

Urban agriculture as a response to food insecurity

Vertical rooftop or backyard gardens connected to rooftop fish tanks were provided to 100 vulnerable, female-headed families. This integrated production system, called aquaponics, capitalizes on the synergies between aquaculture (fish farming) and horticulture (vegetable or fruit growing), and can work where there is no land, no space and where resources are scarce. Waste water from the fish tanks is used to irrigate the vertical rooftop gardens, and acts as an organic fertilizer, increasing vegetable and fruit production without the need of chemical fertilizers. On the other hand, vegetable waste products are used to feed the fish.

Aquaponic systems are an inexpensive source of animal protein and vitamins and thus greatly improve the diets and health of vulnerable households.

Since taking part in the project, Eman Nofal’s life significantly changed. After her husband died in the conflict between the Fatah and Hamas factions in 2006, she faced hard times in feeding her three sons and one daughter. As soon as the aquaponic system was put in place on her rooftop, she started planting and enjoying her home-grown cucumbers, eggplants, hot peppers, rocket, and tomatoes.

“The system doesn’t require much effort to manage”, she says. “It’s only the initial setup of the system that is more time consuming.”

Her children learned how to use the aquaponic system also, planting and harvesting the vegetables and raising the fish. She reports: “I ask my kids to help me with the system because I want them to understand that if they plant, they will be able to harvest and enjoy fresh vegetables.”

Now that the aquaponic system provides her with safe and tasty fish and vegetables, Eman is thinking of increasing the capacity of her integrated production unit by adding more vegetable growing beds and fish tanks. This could help her to generate some income by selling on the market what her family is not able to consume. The money will help her pay rent for her home, and will also contribute to her children's health and education expenses.

Urban aquaponic systems have proven to be successful not only in providing an environmentally sustainable solution to ensure food and nutrition security and to protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, but also in transferring technical skills to younger generations, who can in turn use them to improve their lives.