GAZA CITY — On the roof of a six-story apartment block in Gaza City, 51-year-old Abu Ahmed plucks heads of lettuce and vines of tomatoes from his garden.
With no land to farm, and only sporadic employment, Abu Ahmed had been struggling to feed his family. But now, he uses his roof to grow tomatoes, parsley, red cabbage and onions, all of which feed his family and create a lush green space overlooking the otherwise drab cityscape.
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“My father and my grandfather were farmers — we were always farmers. But we have no land now,” said Abu Ahmed, whose family are refugees from a village that is now inside Israel. “Now, I love to work on this farm. The vegetables are much better than the ones in the market, and they are just upstairs from my home — I can pick them anytime.”
Urban aquaponic farms like Abu Ahmed’s — where herbs and vegetables are grown without soil, in tubs filled with rocks and water from connected fish tanks — have the potential to curb food insecurity in the cramped Gaza Strip.
The United Nations says almost half Gaza’s 1.7 million people lack secure access to food.
But instead of soil and chemical fertilizers, Abu Ahmed uses the nutrient-rich water from fish pools, helping both to save scarce water resources and produce high-quality protein.
“One of the major reasons this is an applicable method in Gaza is the effectiveness with water use,” said Chris Somerville, an agronomist and urban agriculture consultant with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Gaza. “When you are talking about aquaponic or hydroponic or any form of soilless agriculture, you’re using less than 20 percent of the amount of water.”
Given that the region's key issues are water and access to good quality soil, these agricultural methods are all the more appealing.
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Somerville and his team have set up 15 aquaponic farms like Abu Ahmed’s in Gaza City so far, and are hoping to expand the project.
Theirs is just one of several initiatives by local and international organizations to shift from food aid to more sustainable solutions to the dire food security situation here.
Gaza was once famous for its fresh fish and export specialty items like flowers and strawberries, which brought cash to the territory. But Israeli restrictions on the Hamas-run territory, which began in 2007 — blocked the majority of these high-earning exports from leaving, forcing the majority of Gazans to turn to handouts.
Israel also says the buffer zone it maintains inside Gaza, and which it enforces with live fire, is necessary to prevent Gaza-based militants from infiltrating Israel and carrying out attacks against civilians. But this buffer zone swallows the fertile land near the border that would otherwise serve as the territory’s breadbasket.
“In Gaza, there is effectively no hinterland to produce [food],” Somerville said. “With urban sprawl being such a prevalent force in Gaza, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to produce food for the population here.”
Abu Mahmoud’s family of 11 receives urban farming assistance from the Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF), a US organization that provides food aid and housing assistance to Gazans.
Two years ago, the space beside their house in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City was a garbage dump.
“When they closed Israel, I had no work and no money,” said Abu Mahmoud, who worked in construction in Israel before Israeli authorities shut the border during the second Palestinian uprising in 2000.
But now, rows of organic sweet fennel, beans and tomatoes fill the former trash heap, surrounded by gray cinderblock and dusty, concrete buildings. Abu Mahmoud produces enough vegetables for his family, and even trades the excess crops for items he doesn’t grow himself.
“It’s definitely more sustainable than food vouchers,” said Mohamed Sharef, who works for CHF in Gaza.
Rather than giving food aid, 2,000 of the families CHF supports in Gaza’s poorest and most densely populated areas have received kits to produce their own food and relieve their dependence on handouts.
The farming kits include seeds, water tanks and irrigation systems, tools and organic compost, allowing them to grow their own vegetables and herbs without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Other families received chickens or rabbits to help them to produce their own protein source at home, and all get training on how to maintain their new urban farms.
“We want to reach a point where we can depend on ourselves,” said Ihab Al Ghusain, a spokesman for the Hamas government here.
In 2010, the government developed a food and agriculture strategy that aims to ease the territory’s reliance on imported Israeli foods and agriculture supplies by promoting local, pesticide-free production.
As part of that strategy, Hamas last year banned several types of fruit from being imported into the strip both from Israel and through tunnels from Egypt, in order to encourage and promote locally grown produce.
But Al Ghusain says what Gazans really need is open borders and unrestricted access to their land and sea.
“We don’t have any land left in Gaza. Only the land we have left is the land at the [buffer zone],” he said. “If we are free to work in the farms and sea, if we have the borders open, we wouldn’t even need the tunnels — and then we can depend on ourselves.”