By Jihan Anwar
Water scarcity, unemployment and food insecurity – could these devastating social issues be solved, or at least mitigated by a single, all encompassing solution? Researcher Emad Al Saqqaf, General Director for Solar and Green IT Company, believes that there’s indeed a way out, and it’s called aquaponics.
According to the Aquaponic Gardening Community, aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed re-circulating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients.
Basically, aquaculture (fish farming) is coupled with hydroponics (crop farming by water) to create an environment in which fish and plants benefit from each other’s presence. Fish are fed with nutrients from the water used by plants, which is filtered with the use of rocks. Plants receive clean and nitrate rich water pumped from the fish compartment, which fertilizes them.
Aquaponics is important because it could be instrumental in tackling some of the major issues Yemen has been facing for decades; those issues have only worsened in the past two years. Importantly, with aquaponics, water is preserved and the tremendous amount of water used in farming would be significantly reduced.
One of the major problems in water management in Yemen is random, unplanned irrigation. Considering that 83 percent of water is estimated to be used for agriculture, water wasted in farming heavily impacts a country in which the capital is expected to run dry in about two decades.
“With aquaponics we could change the percentage of water used in farming to 1 percent or less” researcher and General Director for Solar and Green IT Company, Emad AlSaqqaf, said. “By studying the use of water for tomatoes irrigation in a field of about 6000 meter squared- about as big as a football camp,” AlSaqqaf says, “we found that to grow the tomatoes, as much as 12,500 meter cube of water per year was used. This is about as much water present in 5 standard Olympic pools.”
With aquaponics, 60 meter cubes of water-instead of 12,500-would suffice to grow the 6000 meter squared field of vegetables. Currently 60 meter cubes are used annually to irrigate one single plant instead. “This is an absolute waste. Instead of consuming thousands of meter cubes of water, 1 meter cube could be used to achieve the same results.” In fact, plants are negatively affected if they are consistently given more water than they require, AlSaqqaf says.
Dr. Ghanem, Professor of Water Resources Engineering at the Cairo University, also observed that aquaponics has many advantages for countries like Yemen or Egypt, which face water scarcity issues since the productivity per unit of water is much higher than conventional agriculture. “If you are looking at productivity per unit land or number of job opportunities per unit of water it is [found to be] much higher in aquaponics,” he points out.
AlSaqqaf argues that growing plants by aquaponics can even yield additional benefits. One hundred percent organic foods can be produced by this method. Dr. Ghanem says that aquaponics provides clean, fresh and nutritious food.
“The truth is that in Yemen the majority of crops are sprayed with pesticides that don’t meet safety standards and are illegal internationally because of their harmful effects,” AlSaqqaf said. The National Oncology Center, the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network and even studies by the Ministry of Health and Population have conducted studies that highlighted the occurrence of cancer induced by crops sprayed by illegal pesticides. “And they continue doing so as if it were of no consequence…The lives and wellbeing of people are lowly valued,” Emad said, adding that hospitals would likely empty if truly organic foods were made available to the population.
But is it really possible to grow a harvest without neither spraying soil pests, nor using trucks or plows? Can a plant grow without the need of traditional irrigating and fertilizing methods?
Aquaponics is already in use in 75 countries. The UAE, with the world largest aquaponics center, has proved skeptics in neighboring countries that it’s not only possible to have a system in which plants grow in absence of soil, but that it can be quite profitable. The center is expected to produce 40 tonnes of food and 12 tonnes of fish in the year 2013. AlSaqqaf himself is growing tomatoes in his room with an aquaponics system and is planning to expand it to the roof of the house.
Emad remarks,“The only way economies can develop is through the help of education and health care.” What’s currently happening in Yemen, AlSaqqaf said, is that agriculture is hindering health care and that people have very little awareness about it. A nation of sick and malnourished people is not likely to see prosperity.
“Before I turned to the IT sector, I worked in the agricultural field. When I first started I thought that all that was needed was a seed to be planted and that everything would go smoothly,” said AlSaqqaf, who recounted of how birds, insects and weather highly determined, and sometimes endangered, the outcome of the harvest. “If the plant succeeds in maturing and a butterfly comes and lays 500 eggs, once hatched, they will destroy the cultivation. Once the tomato has grown and matures to a red color, crows seek to feast. Why should we suffer all this? There are other alternatives, why shouldn’t we take advantage of them?” he asks. Seeds can be found everywhere, freshwater fish can be taken from Marib and rocks are easy to collect, AlSaqqaf said.
With no rivers and an annual average rainfall of 127mm, Yemenis relies on underground water. Water scarcity is increasingly causing conflict among tribes and communities. A study by Sana’a University researchers found that about 75 percent percent of all rural conflicts in Yemen are related to water. These numbers are sure to increase and to include urban areas if an effective solution to the water crisis is found soon.
With traditional farming, the water that is not absorbed by the plant sinks into the soil and is wasted. To regain it and procure water, drilling wells have been the solution in Yemen for years. These wells, mostly illegal, are reaching increasingly deeper levels. In 1970, water could be found 30 meters below the surface, now depths of 1000 to 2000 meters need to be reached before water can be extracted. Ginny Hill, a former BBC journalist who runs the Yemen Forum for Chatham House reports that an estimated 90 percent of the nation’s groundwater is being used to irrigate qat. There were 180 wells in Sana’a in the year 2000; about 100 of the 180 have gone dry since.
Contributing to this unsustainable situation is the amount of diesel required to pump water to the surface. Agriculture accounts for 15 percent of Yemen’s GDP, while the oil sector amounts to as much as 75 percent. However, a considerable portion of government revenue is spent subsidizing petroleum products; particularly diesel for farmers to use water pumps; if the oil sector weakens, the agricultural sector is likely to suffer significantly. The World Bank estimates that in about 5 years no profits will reach the government from oil and that Yemen will become a net oil importer. Much of Yemen’s food imports are possible because of the returns from petroleum and gas products; should oil resources expire, Yemen will have difficulties in meeting its population demand for produce.
Aquaponics both enables nations to grow its own crops and significantly lessens the need for drilling wells for farming. With aquaponics, water is only added to replace water loss from absorption, transpiration or evaporation. This is why aquaponics uses only one to five percent of the water traditional irrigation systems use.
“[Aquaponics] can be established at any scale from a small scale system within a household to feed a family, up to large scale commercial systems,” stated Dr. Ghanem who is involved in the designing of an aquaponics system for Egypt. The scheme is expected to function at a commercial scale for fresh graduates. The doctor explains that it will be used as a component for a relatively small farm, acting as an investment opportunity to spark new productive communities in Egypt.
Dr. Ghanem further suggests that aquaponics systems could be used in a small scale farm to produce protein and fresh fruits and vegetables for the family. “It could serve as a means of income generation for unemployed women, as well as a means of education for children of the household on principles of water saving, plant and fish biology, nutrient cycle, fluid mechanics, hydraulics, microbiology and renewable energies.”
Al Saqqaf explains how both food insecurity and unemployment can be tackled thanks to aquaponics. “People can have aquaponics systems up and running in a matter of days or hours. They will be able to produce their own food. If more than what is consumed is produced, they can sell the excess, be it crops or fish, and start a business.”
AlSaqqaf presented at TEDxSanaa2012 three short months ago. His presentation on aquaponis earned the self-taught 28-year old from Lahj a standing ovation from the audience. AlSaqqaf is currently introducing a small scale system at the Bilqees Club. “For now we are starting the project in a corner with the purpose of demonstrating to people the value and benefits of aquaponics.” He hopes the same can be done for every public park, garden,school and house.
What could hinder the success of an aquaponics system in Yemen? Dr. Ghanem observes that aquaponics naturally requires some initial investment costs. Furthermore, the level of attention and maintenance required, as well as a continuous source of electrical power and a clean source of water are required. The need for a continuous electrical power supply for the water pump could be an obstacle for the implementation of aquaponics in Yemen. AlSaqqaf remains optimistic. “To avoid power shortage problems and to maintain a green environment, I use solar powered pumps. There’s always an alternative solution.”