Palestinians transform Bethlehem rooftop with innovative hydroponic farming

Residents of Aida refugee camp have been using system to grow food

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On a rooftop in Bethlehem Palestinians are using innovative farming techniques to combat the challenges of life in a cramped refugee camp.

Under an opaque white tent, cucumbers are concealed behind large green leaves stretching to the ceiling. The crop stands beside tall tomato plants, while pots of mint line a low pool and lettuce leaves spring out from rows of pipes.

The hydroponic garden on top of the Lajee Centre in Aida refugee camp, in the occupied West Bank, has been months in the making. The technique does away with soil and instead relies on nutrients flowing through water.

“The only expansion possible is vertical and there is no space at all,” said Shatha Alazzeh, head of the community centre’s environmental unit.

Aida is densely populated, with more than 3,000 people living in only 0.7 square kilometres, the UN says.

Residents live in the looming shadow of a cement wall, covered in graffiti, which Israel asserts is a necessary security measure. The barrier was built largely within West Bank territory and runs between the Aida camp and olive trees.

With no green space on their doorstep, residents created the rooftop garden in 2014. They expanded the project late last year with the help of pipes and other equipment, to grow food using hydroponics.

The complex method entails pumping air, water and nutrients through a system which allows plants to grow at a greater pace than they would in soil. Such a process saves water and also avoids the use of pesticides.

“We saw that we can have natural solutions to get rid of all the diseases,” Ms Alazzeh said. “For example, we can use paper, garlic, ladybugs.”

The team at the Lajee Centre received financial support from organisations including 1for3, a charity working with Palestinian refugees, as well as backing from Tufts University in the US. Additionally, the garden project won a grant this year from the UK’s University of St Andrews.

A Palestinian farmer who had tried out hydroponics also offered advice, while Ms Alazzeh said she has a stack of books and manuals to learn more about the method.

Hydroponics are high maintenance and require “perseverance and commitment”, urban farming expert Silvio Caputo said.

“For those who are not familiar with growing food then it can be frustrating, because you need to dedicate time and effort,” said Mr Caputo, a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Kent in the UK.

At Aida, residents who take part in the centre’s health programme, who often suffer from chronic diseases, help to look after the plants and take the produce home.

Dozens of small hydroponic systems were also donated to families who were taught how to use them. But not everywhere in the camp is suitable, as some rooftops are completely covered in water tanks and others receive no sunlight.

You need to embrace the idea before you can understand the value of urban agriculture.
Silvio Caputo, urban farming expert, University of Kent

Transforming corners of the camp into gardens will not remove the need to buy vegetables grown elsewhere, but such an approach can improve the community’s resilience.

“If you encourage community gardens and allotments and city farms, then you know you can rely on those when something goes wrong on the global level,” said Mr Caputo, of potential breakdowns in the supply chain.

Despite this, he said policymakers rarely consider futureproofing their communities in such a way.

“That thinking is not there yet and I think you need to embrace the idea before you can understand the value of urban agriculture,” he said.

Within the West Bank, hydroponics have been used in only a handful of places. But for Abeer Butmeh, co-ordinator for The Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network, the approach has potential for tackling persistent water shortages.

“It is considered one of the smart technologies that conserves water, and also we can monitor the fertilisers … to get rid of chemicals,” she said.

“It’s suitable for villages and refugee camps”, where small-scale projects can be instigated, she said.

Hydroponic pilot projects

Hydroponics have also been tried in the cities of Jenin and Nablus, in the northern West Bank, and the team in Bethlehem hope their project can serve as a model for others.

“Our aim is to expand this idea to other Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank and later on in Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan,” Ms Alazzeh said.

Beyond the direct advantages of growing food in the community, without using up precious water resources, there have been health benefits at Aida, “even to decrease the stress of beneficiaries through cultivation”, she said.

“Because here we don’t have any land, we don’t have any gardens. At least on your rooftop you can create something.”

Updated: October 26, 2021, 6:31 AM