With over two-thirds of the Arab region covered by desert, water scarcity and difficulties in crop growing are an increasing challenge. But as Jordan makes bold steps in adopting smart water technologies , UNHCR is also playing its part testing out the potential of hydroponics in Zaatari refugee camp.
Unlike conventional agriculture, hydroponics is a versatile method which does not require soil. Instead, plants are artificially supported with solutions of ionic compounds serving as nutrients running through a recycled water-based system.
‘Currently, over 600 people have been trained on using hydroponics in Zaatari. We hope to raise awareness not only for refugees in the camps, but also for the host country, since Jordan is the world’s second water-poorest country,’ commented Omar Alrababah, who works for the hydroponics project funded by University of Sheffield.
After starting in December 2017 with the creation of a hydroponic prototype, the project has officially started in November the following year, building two additional prototype hydroponic systems and providing several training sessions on cultivation for refugees inside the camp. Since then, in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, Blumont and Norwegian Refugee Council, UNHCR alongside refugee volunteers have trained over 1,000 residents in the camp.
In addition, after initially began in Zaatari, hydroponics have now extended their reach to other urban areas, including Mafraq and Ruwaished, bringing its benefits to Jordanians as well as refugees. In urban areas especially, hydroponic systems are designed to overcome challenges of limited natural and financial resources.
For refugees, though, this method is a model for sustainable of crop growing, educating and building resilience amongst those who were previously agricultural workers back in Syria.
‘I found the concept really weird when I first learnt about it, but later I was surprised to realize how successful the crop output was. I hope to bring the message across for the community to be self-sustainable and I have started teaching other refugees on the hydroponics technique,’ said Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who was previously a farmer in the fertile Daraa region of Syria.
One of the main benefits of the hydroponic system is that it is extremely water efficient, consuming 70% to 80% less water than traditional methods. It also provides the option for vertical use, reducing space, as trays of plants can be stacked on top of each other.
Under the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), crops are grown and supported in large nutrient tanks. Seeds are first planted in trays of soil for an average of nine days to allow the plants to start to grow. Afterwards, the plants are washed and wrapped in cubes from recycled mattresses which prevent contamination from outside bacteria. They are then transferred to the closed hydroponic system where recycled water is cycled round pipes ensuring that the plants are provided with an optimal amount of nutrients and water. Any produce grown through this method is subsequently distributed for free among refugees in the camp.
In Zaatari camp’s Green Bed Project, recycled materials ranging from yoghurt cans to discarded tubes are used by the camp’s residents to grow various types of crops including tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. Volunteer trainers, along with various staffs and university researchers, have been keeping in contact with refugee trainees to help with any problems that the growers might have and innovate further. In addition, after the plants are grown, they are distributed along with tools for small-scale hydroponic cultivation at no cost to Syrian refugees in the camp.
A key part of UNHCR’s approach in this project is to encourage sustainable and environmentally practices. For Mohammad, previously a farmer in Idlib, his excitement over the new knowledge he has acquired from the hydroponics training is immediately evident.
‘I just started my first hydroponics training today and find optimism in this new method of agriculture. Using the equipment I was given, I have started converting the outside of my caravan house into an area where I can start a small-scale hydroponic system. It’s important to educate my children on this method.’
With the impact of climate change becoming clearly noticeable in Jordan, water-saving techniques are increasingly important. In Zaatari camp, with the support of UNHCR, refugees are paving the way through hydroponics.