Crops are blooming on Gaza City rooftops, thanks to an aquaponic gardening method that saves water and space.

Ala Qandil | 24 Jan 2015

Gaza City – Abu Ahmed’s rooftop was once only a space to store garbage. Today, in the densely populated centre of Gaza City, it is a green oasis. In winter, it is home to leaf vegetables; in summer, to tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, radishes, herbs and even lemon trees.

But this past summer, during the Israeli offensive that lasted 51 days and left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead and tens of thousands of houses damaged or destroyed, the garden became more than just a pleasant spot to relax: It helped Abu Ahmed and his family survive the most difficult days.

“It was not safe to go to the market to buy vegetables, so we ate what grew on the roof – tomatoes, eggplants, peppers,” he told Al Jazeera.

The vegetables grow without soil and without any chemical fertilisers, thanks to an aquaponic gardening technique that Abu Ahmed constantly improves. “This is an answer for Gaza,” he said. “A place hungry for land, water and green areas.”

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Without a stable income, the 51-year-old carpenter said he was first inspired and aided by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). He soon became an expert himself and is now planning to help the FAO set up similar gardens.

The rooftop gardener wants to expand his aquaponic farming, hoping that soon crops from his garden will not only fully sustain his family, but also provide them with added income.
Most of Gaza’s farmers could not access their fields during the Israeli offensive and lost their harvests [Ala Qandil/Al Jazeera]

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with 4,742 inhabitants per square kilometre. With an Israeli-Egyptian siege stifling the local economy, its population struggles with nearly 40 percent unemployment and food insecurity, all exacerbated by the recent offensive.

Most of Gaza’s farmers could not access their fields during the Israeli offensive and lost their harvests. Right after the war, vegetable prices soared, with a kilo of tomatoes costing five times more than before the summer.

Israel has also turned more than a third of Gaza’s agricultural lands into a buffer zone near its border with the coastal enclave. In practise, this means that Palestinian farmers have very limited access to the area, and often risk being shot at by the Israeli soldiers stationed nearby.

Abu Ahmed said his technique could solve Gaza’s land and water shortage problems. Drawing an outline of fish barrels, filters and flowerbeds on a piece of paper, he said: “Normally you need one dunam [1,000sq m] to plant 1,200 plants; with this technique, you can grow it on a fourth of that surface.”

With over 90 percent of the water in Gaza unfit for drinking, and only a fourth of sewage currently being treated, Gaza is on the brink of becoming an uninhabitable place, the UN has warned. The situation was compounded by the destruction of water and sewage infrastructure in the Israeli bombings during the summer.

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Compared to traditional farming, the aquaponic system produces zero waste and requires less than half the water. “In the system, nutrient-rich wastewater from the fish tanks, which would normally need to be changed, treated or dumped, is used as an organic fertiliser for plant production. In turn, this removes the constant need for chemical fertilisers for plant growth,” the FAO said.

In the system, nutrient-rich wastewater from the fish tanks, which would normally need to be changed, treated or dumped, is used as an organic fertiliser for plant production. In turn, this removes the constant need for chemical fertilisers for plant growth.

– FAO statement

But the system is not without its challenges. In a vertical garden, the movement of water, to feed the plant seedlings sitting in long pipes, relies on electricity. In Gaza, frequent power cuts make this difficult to sustain, causing some of the plants to get sick.

“It doesn’t really work with all the electricity cuts,” said Umm Khaled, a 45-year-old mother of eight, who also tries to grow vegetables and herbs on her rooftop in Gaza City.

Power in Gaza is now available for just a few hours a day. After the Egyptian army destroyed the tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border, fuel in the territory became even more scarce and the electricity crisis more severe. Only better-off families can afford a generator and fuel to provide electricity when the cuts happen.

Every two or three hours, Umm Khaled and her children must climb to the roof to stir the water in the fish barrel manually to provide the fish with oxygen. When the electricity returns, an abundance of chores around the house takes their attention away from gardening.

“The harvest is rather symbolic,” she told Al Jazeera. “In winter, we plant strawberries in the pipes. But we get not more than half a kilo of fruit, one strawberry for each family member, just to taste.”

Even Abu Ahmed, who normally relies on a generator, struggled with electricity shortages during the war. After Israel bombed the electric plant, leaving a majority of Gaza’s Palestinians without electricity, Abu Ahmed came to the rooftop every day to manually ensure that water flowed through the flowerbeds and the pipes.

During the war, Abu Ahmed at first slept on the rooftop. “Here, I could catch a breath, relax,” he said. But when shrapnel hit his roof and damaged water tanks, he decided to move back downstairs to the family apartment. Still, he says, he came every day to take care of the plants.
Suad and Mahmud Ahmed describe their rooftop garden as their ‘soul’ [Ala Qandil/Al Jazeera]

For elderly couple Suad and Mahmud Ahmed, this seemed too risky. They do not have a sophisticated aquaponic system, but their garden has served as a green island in the midst of the grey buildings of Gaza’s Tel al-Zaatar neighbourhood.

The couple says the garden is their “soul”. Suad, 61, suffers from heart problems and diabetes, so her husband serves tea with mint leaves, fresh from the flowerbed.

In 2005, Suad planted her first flowers on their building’s roof. Then came a climbing summer squash, whose fruits now hang heavily from the thin ropes. “One plant after another, and now it’s not only a vegetable garden, but also a fruit orchard,” she said, proudly.

Mahmud said he preferred their vegetables to those at the market. “We don’t use any chemical fertilisers or pesticides. We rely only on sheep and rabbit manure,” he explained, as he collected dark purple eggplants with sharp spikes. Grandparents to dozens of boys and girls, the couple says the produce from the rooftop garden meets a quarter of their family’s needs.

When the Israeli offensive against Gaza started this summer, though, they did not risk climbing to the roof. “We didn’t dare to go up. There was a lot of shelling in this area. But once they announced the five-day ceasefire, we came here and saw everything was dead. I cried,” Suad said.

During the ceasefire they collected overripe figs, the only harvest of the summer, and turned it into jam. Now they are replanting greens in sandy flowerbeds, resolved to restore the pre-war glory of their garden home.

“We are refugees, originally felaheen [farmers] from Barbara village, near Majdal,” Suad said. “[The Israelis] took away our lands there, but now we found a way to farm again. And no one can take this from us.”

Source: Al Jazeera