The decade-old Israeli blockade on Gaza has dramatically undermined the coastal strip’s agriculture sector. The electricity crisis has exacerbated this problem. With electricity available for only three to four hours a day, most productive sectors in Gaza are debilitated to the point of paralysis.
But Palestinians in Gaza have long had to rely on their own resourcefulness to survive. They’ve powered cars with cooking oil, built homes from mud bricks and, at one point, created a tunnel industry that, according to the United Nations, became a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza before Egypt mostly shut it down in 2015.
This resourcefulness has also been brought to bear on the agriculture sector. With overcrowding causing urban spread from one side, and an Israeli military no-go area infringing on mostly agricultural land on the other, arable land is at a premium. Palestinians in Gaza have – yet again – had to think outside the box. With no land outward, they’ve moved upward to the rooftops.
That project saw more than 200 female-headed households provided with fish tanks and equipment for aquaponic units. Aquaponics is the practice of soilless vegetable growing in combination with fish tanks whose nutrient-rich wastewater is used as fertilizer.
The practice has since spread, as Palestinians in Gaza adapted the methods to suit their own needs and the materials available to them. The “farmer” starts by recycling plastic and wood materials to form garden containers. Seeds, bought from local farms, are planted in soil inside these containers and, where available, the practice of using wastewater from fish tanks is also utilized.
The result provides a means to address a problem that has grown to dangerous proportions.
According to the UN, some 47 percent of Palestinians in Gaza suffer food insecurity, up from 44 percent in 2012. This has come as agricultural production has dropped off dramatically as a result of the Israeli-imposed blockade. From 2000 to 2006, average annual agricultural trade reached $18 million: by 2014 it had sunk to $2.2 million.
Growth since then to $13.3 million in 2016 has yet to reach the level of the 2000-2006 time period.
Given a high annual population growth of more than 3 percent, a moribund economy unable to recover under the blockade, an unemployment rate at 42 percent and a poverty rate at 40 percent, Gaza desperately needs new ideas to feed a growing and impoverished population.
Dr. Ahmad Saleh, an agricultural consultant and former professor in the Faculty for Agricultural Engineering at Al-Azhar University, is working to facilitate organic rooftop farming. To this end, he has established his own rooftop farm in the Tawam neighborhood of Gaza City.
For Saleh, rooftop farming has another potential advantage other than making the most of scarce space. He used parts from old cars, plastic boxes and bottles to create colorful containers for the 60-square-meter space on his roof. The area has been divided into two sections: one is for ornamental plants, including cacti and flowers, creating a pleasant space for socializing and a hub for family, friends and neighbors.
The other section is for produce. Saleh grows parsley, celery, sage, thyme, tomatoes, chilies, onions, eggplants, radishes, sweet peppers, seasonal lemons and beans.
“There are many useful benefits with this project,” he said, as he showed this reporter around his rooftop garden. “First, the produce is free from harmful chemicals, avoiding any harmful effects of chemical fertilizers. Second, the food tastes far better than what is found in the markets.”
But the advantages are not confined to health and social benefits. The positives are more extensive, Saleh said, beyond even possible commercial benefits or enhanced food access.
“Rooftop agriculture enables and empowers people. It allows them to find effective ways to confront environmental problems and helps create a healthier population.”
This type of farming is also, he argued, accessible to most people. Though aquaculture and fish farming can be involved and could raise costs, containers can be made from found recycled materials.
The most expensive component, said Saleh – assuming others, like him, build their own containers from the plastic and debris that is strewn around Gaza – is the soil itself, which is mixed with organic fertilizer, and costs between $200 to $350 for 25 square meters.
A social space
“Many customers are beginning to become aware of produce grown without chemicals. But they do need more labor and attention,” he said.
Al-Sharqawi plans to build more containers. He said demand is increasing and he wants to keep on top of it.
Muhyeddin al-Kahlout, 65, started a rooftop farm in part for its social aspect.
A retired school director, al-Kahlout returned to Gaza in 1992 from Kuwait where he had lived and taught for more than 25 years. There, he picked up a passion for gardening, so when he retired and knew he was coming home, he decided to try the same in Gaza.
Al-Kahlout turned to the Internet and learned some tips on rooftop gardening. He built wooden containers and created others from discarded plastic bottles, topping off the project by putting out an old bench for the family to enjoy.
Over the course of the last year he was able to grow lettuce, green beans and basil one season and tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers and eggplants in another.
He has also planted ornamental trees to create a space for family and friends. The project, in his view, is “entertainment.”
“We are experiencing severe power shortages and there is already a scarcity of recreational places. Many of my friends liked the idea. Now they are starting to think about doing the same on their rooftops.”
Sondos Walid is a freelance journalist based in the Gaza Strip.