Growing fresh vegetables and stronger futures in Palestine

Hydroponics allows families to grow more fruit and vegetables than ever before

Story by Liam Brown

Faida Tanina lives in the West Bank with her family of seven, four of whom are still studying at school. Her husband Hamza has been sick for ten years.

Faida’s children with vegetables freshly grown using hydroponics. Photo: WFP/Palestine

She depends on financial support from relatives and assistance from Palestine’s Ministry of Social Development, which provides 200 shekels (approximately US$58) per month. With no additional source of income, her family struggles to cover the costs of family food, transportation, school expenses and her husband’s medical treatment.

Faida’s family is one of many living in poverty and food insecurity in Palestine, where nearly one third of the population — 32.7 percent, or 1.6 million people — do not have the means to afford nutritious food. Resources such as land, water and energy are extremely scarce, and agricultural production has declined dramatically.

That’s why the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has begun piloting an environmentally and climate-friendly project to help vulnerable people in Palestine to grow fruit, vegetables and animal fodder using hydroponics.

WFP Palestine’s hope is to expand the use of hydroponics, a soilless cultivation technique that allows farmers to grow crops using up to 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture. Its use in the region is part of a broader vision of enhancing climate-smart agriculture in the West Bank and Gaza to reach thousands of families like Faida’s. The approach should increase food security, climate resilience and self-sufficiency for those who need it most.

Growing food in impossible places

WFP’s H2Grow project helps vulnerable communities to gain their own hydroponic systems, allowing them to grow food in impossible places like deserts, refugee camps and urban settings.

Faida’s family is one of the 34 households that have been trained and equipped with hydroponics in Palestine, implemented in partnership with the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ) in the West Bank and OXFAM/MA’AN in the Gaza Strip. Now, families are taking advantage of unused space like backyards, unused land and house roofs to grow fruit, vegetables and animal fodder to feed their livestock.

Faida’s indoor hydroponics garden. Photo: WFP/Palestine

While H2Grow is operating in seven countries, the Palestine pilot is the only one experimenting with wicking beds — essentially planter boxes fitted with low-tech irrigation systems, using up to 50 percent less water than traditional irrigation.

“We have grown different vegetables with the wicking bed system that we received from the WFP/ARIJ project over two successive seasons,” says Faida. “We were able to produce 170 kg of vegetables, helping my family to save US$67.” By prioritizing female-headed-households, the project seeks to benefit many more women just like Faida in the future.

Faida and child in her WFP-supported indoor hydroponics garden. Photo: WFP/Palestine

Harvesting under lockdown

Stuck at home due to COVID-19, Faida planted her next round of summer crops at the start of May 2020. They are progressing well.

Like many regions around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult to access and buy fresh food in Palestine. Many families have less income due to the economic shutdown, and the movement restrictions have made it more difficult to reach markets.

One of the female participants said: “I am very happy that I managed to produce healthy vegetables for my children. I keep planting my wicking bed system to keep getting access to homemade vegetables.”

The H2Grow project is well-suited to address the challenges posed by COVID-19, allowing vulnerable people to grow fresh food without needing to leave home to go shopping and expose themselves to potential infection. Participating households were able to grow 120 kg of vegetables on average from February to April 2020 — when COVID-19 cases peaked in Palestine — covering 35 to 45 percent of their households’ consumption of vegetables.

Some families have been able to produce enough fresh vegetables to store part of their harvests for consumption at a later time. Others have sold their surplus vegetables, providing an important source of extra income given many people have been forced to stay at home without work due to the lockdown. Being able to tend to the crops also helped many participants feel productive despite being stuck at home, and the beds of growing vegetables have given the families a green oasis to enjoy.

Scaling up in Palestine

WFP Palestine and its partners OXFAM/Ma’an and ARIJ have completed the first stage of the climate-resilient agriculture pilot, reaching 1,331 people in Gaza and the West Bank.

The project is now kicking off a second phase pilot, which will run from June 2020 to March 2021, supporting and training 200 new households on climate-resilient agricultural technologies, some of which include hydroponic growing techniques. The project will also pilot the hydroponics model at an institutional level, working with partners like schools, cooperatives, women’s shelters and homes for people with disabilities. Finally, the second phase will also explore the possibility of diversifying crops and scaling up the size of provided systems — supporting a more “agro-ecological” approach — including producing compost at the household level.

A participant in Gaza growing tomatoes with hydroponics said he “has never seen before this quantity and quality picked from such a small space”. Photo: WFP/Palestine

Learn more about WFP’s hydroponics project, H2Grow.

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