Growing things in Gaza

Untitled In the middle of last month a violent storm blew across Palestine and Israel, the worst in decades. The strongest winds were felt in the East, but Gaza also took a battering. Fifteen-foot waves swept up the coast and cleared the breakwater of the fishing port, wrecking boats and gear, while a sandy wind scoured the fields and greenhouses, uprooting fruit trees, polytunnels, beehives and animal shelters. Initial assessments put the damage around $3 million – not a huge figure, perhaps, but to put it in context it is more than the entire agriculture sector received in emergency assistance in 2010. The only small compensation was for the few lucky fishermen who know where ancient wrecks lie (and who guard those secrets closely): when the water cleared the seabed yielded its customary crop of coins and artefacts from this richest of historical palimpsests.

Of course, modern-day Gazans live in nothing like the splendour of their Bronze Age, Roman or Ayyubid counterparts, and farmers and fishermen are among the poorest. Despite fertile soils and a (usually) clement climate, they are handicapped by the continuing Israeli occupation of the coastal enclave. Free-fire zones on land and sea prevent farmers from reaching 35% of the remaining arable land and fishermen from accessing 85% of their fishing grounds. Until June, when the deaths of nine Turkish activists attempting to reach Gaza by sea sparked international outrage, Israel imposed a sanctions regime harsher than any in force anywhere else in the world, including Burma and North Korea. Three lost winters for cash crops (including Gaza’s famous strawberries) crippled the once-thriving export industry, while production for the domestic market foundered for the lack of basic inputs such as insect-proof mesh, water pumps and greenhouse plastic. Although the blockade has been partially eased, gaps are still being filled by imports through the tunnels along the Egyptian border, including of unvaccinated cattle originating in countries where diseases like East Coast fever are rife.

The shortage of water also causes animals to sicken, with kidney diseases in ruminants on the rise thanks to the salinisation of the aquifer. Abstraction of water stands at around 200% of the annual recharge capacity, leaving less than 10% of Gaza’s water potable. Cruelly, it barely rained at all during the recent storm: this is the fourth consecutive year of below average rainfall, and the worst so far. Winter vegetables may not be grown at all in some areas. Finally (if you haven’t yet switched off), mention must be made of the dreaded tomato leaf miner, tuta absoluta, which has been munching its way through Gaza’s tomatoes since arriving in the Strip in 2010, and which could move onto sweet peppers, chillies, aubergines and potatoes if it gets really hungry. The woeful state of Gaza’s greenhouses caused by blockade and bombardment allowed the infestation to take hold, and the storm means that at least 3,000 will need insect-proofing again.

I anticipate that readers may well have switched off by this stage, because the only thing that seems to come out of Gaza is bad news.

I could add to this litany of woes for several more paragraphs (although foolishly I signed up to these Monday Columns using my real name, so don’t expect too many pearls of wisdom about the UN, the Palestinian Authority or Hamas), but most people already know that life for the 1.6 million people of Gaza is tough. Over 70% are dependent on external assistance, and each square kilometre contains an average of around 4,400 people. (For comparison, if you moved the entire population of the world to Mexico, it would be 20% less densely populated. Now try feeding everybody…) However, other people’s problems are never as interesting as our own, especially if they have been going on for a long time, and in any case I already spend a good deal of time talking about Gaza’s woes to an increasingly-fatigued donor community.

What you may find interesting, however, are the small pinpricks of good news that I come across in the course of my work.

For in fact, like Gaza’s problems, Gaza’s solutions do have a bearing on the rest of us. Granted we are almost certainly richer, less crowded and freer than the average Gazan, and our fields are unlikely to be contaminated with white phosphorous, but in some respects the challenges facing Gazan food producers are a microcosm of those facing – or soon to face – the rest of the rapidly-urbanising world. By 2050 the world will probably be feeding an extra 3 billion people, of whom 70% (i.e. the current global population) are projected to live in cities. Water and energy scarcity, climate change, transboundary diseases and rapid population growth threaten food security in Gaza now, but they are ignored by the rest of us at our peril.

As Plato (or possible Aesop) said, necessity is the mother of invention. Despite the almost total lack of research facilities (al-Azhar University’s Agriculture faculty and the Islamic University’s laboratories were bombed in 2009), a highly-educated population dealing with severely-restricted circumstances is a recipe for innovation. I have seen ever more elaborate (and waterproof) buildings constructed from compressed earth, with two small factories now producing cheaper and more durable blocks. I have visited a laboratory – more of a kitchen, really – where an organic pesticide (BT) is being produced so effectively that the owners sell it to municipalities for a tenth of the price it costs in Israel. That knocked mosquitoes on the head throughout Gaza; they are now working on producing the variant which attacks the dreaded tomato pest mentioned above (bane of my summer, and that of 3,500 tomato farmers).

Old taboos against using household waste water and sewerage for agriculture are disappearing as small-scale treatment plants become more common and water recycling techniques become safer and easier. Composting is increasingly widely practised, and small businesses are even able to make a modest profit from it. Households even in cities increasingly grow some of their own food, and urban agriculture techniques such as vertical gardening are being employed in densely-populated refugee camps. Small freshwater fish farms are springing up, connected to a neighbour’s irrigation systems to make use of the nutrient-rich water. Even at household level, experiments are being undertaken to combine the growing of fish with vegetables.

Individuals, the private sector and NGOs are taking the lead, but even the Hamas government enthusiastically champions sustainable and environmentally-friendly solutions in its new 10-year plan for agriculture (yes, 10 years – they’re not going away), with some sections of the document reading like a Green Party manifesto. Of course, the overall picture for food security is still far from rosy. But I find it intriguing that ideas which some consider merely trendy, such as permaculture, aquaponics, grey-water recycling, integrated pest management, alternative energies and roof-top gardens, are already being adopted out of necessity in Gaza. And it delights me the prospect that, just possibly, something will be discovered here in Gaza which could positively influence the rest of the world.