Sharing innovative, water-saving agri-aquaculture experiences across the Near East and North Africa

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By Milthon Lujan

Rome, Italy.- Water scarcity is a pressing concern around much of the world, and particularly in the Near East and North Africa region. FAO has responded with Regional Water Scarcity Initiative, managed by FAO’s Regional Office in Cairo, Egypt, and is a part of FAO’s Common Vision for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. As part of this initiative, experts are documenting examples of the smart use of water and best management practices for integrated agriculture-aquaculture farming systems in in focus countries from the Near East and North Africa region including Algeria, Egypt and the Sultanate of Oman.

A farmer-to-farmer study tour was held 6-16 November where FAO facilitated farmers from Algeria, Egypt and Oman to come together and travel to more than ten integrated aquaculture and agriculture farms in Algeria and Egypt.

Through this exchange of experience, funded by the Water Scarcity Initiative and South-South Cooperation with Non State Actors program, farmers learned water saving practices and were able to share what works, and what does not, in a local context.

The scarcity of availability and access to water has led to the development of innovative, integrated aquaculture-agriculture systems that make the best and most complete use of precious water resources; water should not be wasted, and integrating different systems to produce multiple products with the same water increases efficiency.

There are many ways to combine aquaculture and agriculture, but commonly farmers use closed systems to maximize their use of water resources. Often, vegetables are irrigated with the same water used to raise the fish.

The added bonus is that the water is fertilized from the fish waste, becoming rich in organic nutrients, and this ‘fertilized’ water increases plant production and decreases the need for additional fertilizers. Most importantly, the limited water resources are used efficiently. Indeed, some integrated farms boast of reducing water consumption by 90% compared to traditional agriculture.

“Water scarcity is a real concern in our region,“ according to Pasquale Steduto, Regional Programme Leader for FAO’s Regional office for the Near East and North Africa. “This study tour is part of a Regional Collaborative Strategy where countries exchange knowledge and experiences on common issues. In this specific case, the tour provided the opportunity to farmers to learn from each other enhanced ways of producing more food for their countries’ growing population, while simultaneously using less of the scare water resources. The integrated aquaculture/agriculture systems included on this study tour are quite innovative for efficient water use, and the farmers from Algeria, Egypt and Oman not only have learned from these examples but have also initiated an important dialogue about how we can scale up these practices across the region.”

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In Algeria, farms visited included a fish farm producing North African catfish (Clarias gariepinus). The water for this project was obtained from groundwater deep in the desert. Once fertilized by the fish waste, the water was used to grow palm trees producing dates.

Various sites were visited in Egypt as well, including some aquaponics projects. Aquaponics is a closed production system that integrates aquaculture with hydroponics, the soilless cultivation of plants.

The fertilized water from the fish pond travels through tubes to water crops and returns back to the ponds. For more information on FAO’s work with aquaponics in the Near East and North Africa region, please see the workshop report or the technical manual in English and Arabic.

Egyptian aquaponics projects raised Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and North African catfish, while using the water in which those fish were farmed to watering high-quality crops of lettuce, basil, mint and chives.

As illustrated in an accompanying photo, one aquaponics ‘unit’ is estimated to produce enough fish and vegetables to feed a family of four.

Another interesting project visited in Egypt was a large, almost entirely contained aquaculture-agriculture farm. Tilapia are grown in the fish tanks, which are connected to ponds growing a special water-fern called Azolla which cleans the nutrients from the water while fixing atmospheric nitrogen, literally creating fertilizer from thin air.

Simple practices, such as using net-bags in the ponds as biological filters, are among the techniques the farmers were able to share (see accompanying photos).

Finally, this water is used to irrigate grapes, olive trees, oranges and mangoes.

According to FAO Aquaculture Officer Valerio Crespi, who took part in the study tour, “One of the interesting aspects we saw was how the farmers are creating their own fish feed. Considering that fish feed represents a major cost for fish farmers – often arriving at 60-70% of total expenditures – reducing feeding costs increases the farmer’s autonomy and profit. Not surprisingly, this was of great interest to the participants. On this farm, the fish feed was made from larvae of the Black Soldier fly (Hermetia illucens). These larvae, grown on agricultural byproducts, are nearly 50% protein and provide a safe and efficient tool to recycle wastes. Larvae are cleaned, dried and powered to create protein meal, which is then mixed together with other ingredients grown on the farm such as the Azolla, and formulated into pellets for fish.”

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And what did the farmers think about their experience? Rabab Hashim, a woman from Oman focused on developing integrated agri-aquaculture farms said, “Systems and materials used differ from one farm to another, and so these trips allow us to be exposed to different ideas. I will take this knowledge and implement it in my farm and follow the same procedures we saw in both countries.”

Egyptian agri-aquaculture farm owner Gabr Hossny added, “I noticed that my fish farm is not as developed as others and so I decided to join the project to learn the newest technologies and best management practices. I learned how to grow healthy fish efficiently with limited waste of water and to earn the greatest profit with at the lowest cost. This will not only benefit me, but it will also benefit the market in general.”

Nora Ourabah Haddad, the FAO Representative to the Sultanate of Oman added “I must say that the objectives of this South-South cooperation project with Non State Actors between the three countries have been met, and have gone beyond our initial expectations. In particular, after hearing the positive feedback from all participants including the Omanis, this visits demonstrates once more the added value of peer to peer exchanges. These exchanges turn out to be beneficial to both parties, hosts and guests.

Sharing knowledge, experiences, innovative achievements and best practices on integrated agri-aquaculture helps strengthen the capacities of farmers, fisher folks associations and cooperatives making an increased contribution to the fisheries sector in the region in a sustainable way. “

Paula Anton, Aquaculture Officer at FAO’s Regional Office for North Africa and the Near East added, “We received a lot of positive feedback from participants who took part on this study tour. This was an excellent opportunity to learn from the experiences of others working in the field, to exchange ideas, and to return to their countries armed with new techniques and approaches. The farmers will continue to exchange ideas and knowledge, and we will be working to develop methodologies to guide us in producing a road map for possible upscaling across the region.”

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A third study tour will be organized early next year in Oman and it will be followed by a Regional workshop to be held in Cairo in March to discuss next steps for strengthening integrated agri-aquaculture farming systems in the region. We’ll be sure to follow progress for this interesting area of work.

FAO. 2016. Report of the FAO technical workshop on advancing aquaponics: an efficient use of limited resources, Osimo, Italy, 27–30 October 2015. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Report No. 1132. Rome, Italy. 

Somerville, C., Cohen, M., Pantanella, E., Stankus, A. & Lovatelli, A. 2014. Small-scale aquaponic food production. Integrated fish and plant farming. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 589. Rome, FAO. 262 pp. 

Source: FAO

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