Dubai resident sets up aquaponics system in his backyard

Daniel Frawley, an engineer from Australia, is the proud owner of a small aquaponics system at his ground-floor flat in the Greens.

Dubai resident Daniel Frawley has set up a hydroponic gardening system in his garden and has basil and tomatoes growing. Lee Hoagland / The National
Powered by automated translation

DUBAI // When you live in the middle of a desert, a vegetable patch is no small challenge.

But one Dubai resident is growing tomatoes, cucumbers and Thai basil, as well as rearing fish.

Daniel Frawley, an engineer from Australia, is now the proud owner of a small aquaponics system at his ground-floor flat in the Greens.

“I wanted to experiment,” said Mr Frawley. “We also wanted to grow a vegetable patch this winter for my son Bertie to go out and see the vegetables grow.”

The system uses waste from traditional fish farming as fertiliser for a hydroponic vegetable tank.

Although aquaponic systems are not unusual – in countries including Australia garden centres sell the systems in kit form – they are all but unheard of in the UAE.

“It’s an ancient technique that we’ve sort of forgotten about,” Mr Frawley said. “Aquaculture and hydroponics separately can be quite inefficient, but if you put them together they counter each other out because there’s no waste.”

The fish waste fertilises plants that clean the water, allowing it to be re-used, while producing food.

The Frawleys live over a car park so they could not dig down to build the system so Mr Frawley decided on an aquaponics unit and started looking for parts.

“We bought a second-hand bulk container from a guy for Dh600,” Mr Frawley said. “I had to convince him to sell it because he doesn’t usually sell them to residents.”

He cut the container in two, using each half as a tank – one for fish and one for plants. He then added clay-like rocks in the vegetable tank, bought from an Iranian man on Plant Street in Satwa. “Because it’s so porous, it takes on all the bacteria and creates a little environment,” Mr Frawley said.

He set up a 100-watt pump in the fish tank, which continually pumps 1,000 litres of water around the system, and he bought 15 tilapia fingerlings for 50 fils each from a fish farmer in Sharjah.

“Every piece Dan bought couldn’t be bought from a shop,” said Mr Frawley’s wife, Katherine. “He had to source everything individually and convince people to sell them.

“It was a lot of work and it took two months to source everything at a cost of Dh2,000, but it’s well worth it for us.”

The fish now weigh about 500 grams and should reach 900g in the next few months. But Mr Frawley is only using them for their waste. “It’s not about breeding fish but more to grow vegetables,” he said. “The plants act as a biofilter to clean the water so when it drains back out, it is reasonably clean.”

Every morning Bertie, 2, feeds the fish. “It’s been a passion project and it’s been nice because Bertie’s been involved in it,” said Mrs Frawley. “The biggest investment was setting it up and sourcing all the products but it’s fantastic and it’s not a lot of work.”

Not every experiment was a success. Lettuce and kale failed to thrive. But the successes have more than made up for that.

“The quality is better than in supermarkets,” said Mr Frawley. “It’s still stabilising a bit but it’s come on pretty quickly. Within a few weeks, tomatoes grew.”

Experts say the system is healthy. “As long as they use tilapia fish, it’s good and there’s nothing dangerous about it at all,” said Hoda Jaffal, of Al Yousuf Agricultural and Landscaping in Dubai.