‘Eat your fish, eat your food and save water’

Published on 31 December 2012 in Report
Katie Riordan (author)

Katie Riordan

Emad  Adel Al Sakkaf tends to his home aquaponic venture.  He says it takes very little effort to maintain the hybrid system, which is a growing movement in 75 countries worldwide.

Emad Adel Al Sakkaf tends to his home aquaponic venture. He says it takes very little effort to maintain the hybrid system, which is a growing movement in 75 countries worldwide.

Fish swimming in the 250 liter tanks in Emad Adel Al Sakkaf’s living room have no idea they are responsible for the growing tomato plants that rest above, bedded in plastic oil containers filled with rocks. A week ago, the plants fruited, validating Al Sakkaf’s claim that a closed-circuit agricultural system, known as aquaponics, could save Yemen’s dwindling water supply and feed the nation.

Al Sakkaf, a young man with no formal higher education, has become a vanguard of this contemporary urban and rural farming model, using only two to five percent of the water that traditional agriculture does.   

Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (farming fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). The fish and plants grow together in a symbiotic model that recycles water between them.

“It’s a simple system,” Al Sakkaf says. “There are fish in a pool. Fish waste in the water - ammonia and nitrogen – is pumped to the plants.  The plants get the nitrogen and the stones filter the clean water back to the fish.” He explains the diminutive amount of water lost in the recirculation process is through evaporation.

In Yemen, where warnings by experts of water depletion increasingly predict a doomsday scenario, Al Sakkaf believes aquaponics is a no brainer.  

“Our water is in crisis. Farmers use 83 percent of our water because of random irrigation.  Vegetables need a lot of water and so does qat. We need this system to save the ground water,” he says.

Local water specialists corroborate Al Sakkaf’s dire water narrative.

“Yemen is the most water scarce country in the Middle East,” says Anwer Sahooly , an authority on water at the Yemeni-German Technical Cooperation.  He confirms what many have been saying for years, the capital city, Sana’a, will run out of water at current depletion rates.  

In other arid Arab nations where food and water shortages increasingly plague governments, both commercial and small-scale aquaponics systems have been received positively. The United Arab Emirates, is now home to the largest aquaponics center in the world.  

Historians believe the growing global movement of aquaponics is rooted in primitive methods originally used by Aztecs. But it wasn’t until earlier this year, when Al Sakkaf received a phone call from a relative in the United States, that Yemen found its very own architect for the system.   

Khaldoun Al-Dhalhie, along with Al Sakkaf’s uncle and another friend had been researching aquaponics in their New York City living rooms, hoping it could solve Yemen’s water crisis. They called on Al Sakkaf for help.  

Although their team successfully built small systems in urban homes, they needed practical information about available fish and materials in Yemen if they wanted their scheme to work on a large-scale farm.

Al Sakkaf, a former farmer with a flair for innovative environmental ideas seemed the right man for the job.  

“I needed to do it by myself. I needed to convince myself,” he says.

While Al Sakkaf continued his solar panel installation business by day, he immediately went to work building his own aquaponic system. He scoured for freshwater fish in the city of Marib for the tank, gathered stones around Sana’a for the plants and built a solar powered pump for his model using recycled materials.  Now he is convinced every home in Sana’a should have its own.

He calls it a revolution in urban farming and praises the system for the organic vegetables and protein the fish could provide individual homes.  

Shaking off criticisms of aquaponics – initial start-up costs can be expensive, and it is not truly sustainable because its materials tend to be plastic – Al Sakkaf says all you need is an idea.  

“It can be homemade. There is a lot of room for creativity. I’ll show then that you can start from zero cost,” he says. “If you can convince people of it, they will cross obstacles.”

This is exactly the attitude that landed him one of the coveted presenter spots for Sana’a’s 2012 TEDx conference, an independently organized event designed to spread ideas.   

“I think because he is young and put this into practice, it will tell a lot of people, ‘Okay, we can do it also,’” says Osama Mostafa, a conference programmer.

Like the vast majority of Yemenis, Mostafa had never heard of aquaponics. Although he and his colleagues were initially interested when Al Sakkaf presented it to them, they were not convinced of its practicality.

“We could see it being implemented on small-scale, but could it be a large-scale? Can a normal villager use it? The idea is nice, but how can we use it in a real way for the problems facing us in agriculture?” asks Mazen Al-Hebshi, a TEDx organizer.  

Al Sakkaf’s lack of scientific credentials did not serve him well with the folks at TEDx. He scrambled for statistics and diagrams to assure them of what he believed farmers could do with aquaponic systems.  

For now, he is keeping his “large-scale” plans under wraps, to be revealed at the conference on Monday. It remains to be seen if he can convince the audience if Yemen’s limited resources will provide a context for implementation.    

Although Al Sakkaf maintains his focus will be “homes first - and then farms,” he and Al-Dhalhie’s team hope to turn their living room experiments into commercial endeavors.  They want aquaponics businessses up and running in the next year.  

While they are still looking for financial investment, they say making money is not the objective. Their first priority is keeping Yemen from running dry.

“Let it develop on a massive level. We need to talk to every farmer. It will not be a business for us - it will be a business for everyone,” says Al-Dhalhie.

He adds, “It will work. Light, water, fish seed.  It’s that simple.”