Urban agriculture in the Gaza Strip, Palestine
By Luc Laeremans (Free University of Brussels, Belgium) & Ahmed Sourani
(Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees, Gaza, Palestine)
Director of Projects & External Relations Dept.
Agricultural Development Association (PARC)-Gaza
Gaza, P.O. Box; 225
Tel: +972 (or 970) 8 2805042
Fax: + 972 (or 970) 8 2805039
Mobile:+972 (or 970 ) 599 302 704
The Gaza Strip, Palestine is a small stretch of land bordering the Mediterranean, 46 kilometres long by 6-10 kilometres wide. On this area of approximately 360 km², population numbers increased dramatically over the last 50 years, since it became a refuge from many who were displaced after the creation of Israel: from about 50.000 in 1948 to an estimated 1.2 million in 2002. With population densities of 20.000 up to 100.000 persons per square kilometre, Gaza became one of the most highly populated areas in the world.
The flat to rolling landscape of Gaza is characterised by a semi-arid climate situated at the intersection of the fertile coastal plains in the North, the Negev desert and Hebron hills in the East and the Sinai desert in the South. Despite its small area, rainfall varies widely; Southern Gaza receives about 250 mm of rain per year, not enough for unirrigated agriculture, while the North receives almost 400 mm, which is just enough for some agricultural practices without irrigation. Rainfall is concentrated (96%) during the winter months.
Socio-economic status of agriculture
The agricultural sector in Gaza has a significant position within the local society as it supplies food products to the majority of the local population. Moreover, its contribution to the economy of the area is noteworthy as an earner of foreign exchange. Its share of the GDP is about 10 %. About 20 % of the employed labour force in Gaza worked in the agricultural sector in 2004, with many more considered to be active in informal agriculture . Moreover, in times of political-economical difficulties such as the prevailing intifada, the sector is known to absorb large numbers of unemployed people who lost their jobs in Israel or in other local sectors of the shrinking economy (PARC, 2004).
In Gaza and the West Bank , agricultural vegetal production consisted roughly of 35 % vegetable crops, 25 % citrus, 25% non-citrus fruit trees, and 15 % field crops and forage. In the last 30 years, economic and political considerations reshaped agricultural production drastically in Gaza. There has been a significant shift, in irrigated and rain-fed farming respectively, from fruit trees to high cash-value crops (vegetables and flowers) and from field crops to olives. In an attempt to serve the foreign markets, farmers adopted new agricultural technologies and practices. The introduction of greenhouses, particularly in the northern part of the Strip, has been noteworthy. One survey found that the area covered by greenhouses increased from 3940 dunum in 1991/92 to 14000 dunum in 2004 (PARC 2004).
As a result of this production shift, Palestine has moved away from agricultural food security. While exporting a limited number of vegetables, olives and citrus, there is an import of field crops and certain types of fruits and vegetables. The importing is a partial consequence of the deficiency in the local supply/demand balance of these products . These shifts also led to an increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides.
The production shift in the Palestinian territories towards export-oriented markets has recently revealed its drawbacks. Since the failure of the peace process and the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, food security has become one of the most pressing issues in Palestinian society. The economic collapse, together with Israel’s closure policy, has left all but a few Palestinians in Gaza dependent – to some extent at least – on foreign aid to survive. The UN food programme has grown to the point of reaching 220,000 families of the territories; almost a quarter of Palestinian children are suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition.
Increasing constraints on agricultural crop production
Nearly half the total area of Gaza (175,000 dunums) is cultivable land. Agricultural expansion in the Gaza Strip seems to have reached its limits as almost all is under exploitation. Besides 89,000 dunums of dunes, all the available land has been left by Israeli EX-settlements (38,000 dunums) and Arab (mostly residential) urbanisation (70,000 dunums) . Due to a yearly population growth rate of more than 3 % and an urbanisation rate of 6 % over the last 10 years, a decrease of at least 40,000 dumums or 24% of the total cultivable land is expected by 2012.
Limited land resources and harsh economic conditions are stimuli to intensive, non sustainable agricultural practices which often exceed the carrying capacity of the soil and the water resources. Soil degradation (erosion, pollution, salination,..) and negative effects on the existing water resources have been the obvious results. Declining groundwater quality and decreasing water quantities have become a major factor of pressure on agriculture and on human activity in general. The coastal aquifer, the main source of (ground) water for the area has become overexploited by the use of more than 2000 wells. Other water sources in Gaza, such as the runoff from the Hebron hills, have been diverted by the Israelis. 72 % of the pumped groundwater is allocated to agriculture since 61 % of the agricultural land is irrigated. The Palestinian Ministry of Planning has considered the alarming rate of water resource depletion to cause a severe negative effect on the socio-economic situation in the near future, not least for the regional agricultural economy. “Ground water will simply become too expensive for agricultural use … agricultural practices based on ground water irrigation are doomed to collapse if the water resources are not adequately controlled”.
Due to the overconsumption of groundwater, seawater intrusion has been causing irreversible salination. Infiltration of sewage water, leakage of water treatment plants, pesticides and fertilisers from agricultural practices in turn bring about contamination of the aquifer’s water source. Contamination and salination is reflected in the high average concentrations of mineral substances in the groundwater which already exceed the standards set by the World Health Organisation.
Urban agricultural practices in Palestine
Ashour al-Lahm, a Gaza farmer, explains how plants and animals are traditionally part of Palestinian urban society: “… fish-ponds, chicken gardens, pigeon cages, spinach and mulukhia, green pepper, mint, palm trees, olives, vines and lemon trees; they represent a continuation of inherited traditions” . Household gardens have long held an ornamental function of bringing shade and beauty to a place, besides the function of food supply. Further, Dr. Hatim al-Shanti of the Al-Azhar University of Gaza refers to animal husbandry in this way: “The life of Palestinian people witnessed domestic animal raising. This habit was inherited and became part of the Palestinian culture. It was hard to find a house in the camps or villages without a place for raising animals, such as: hens, rabbits, pigeons, ducks, sheep, goats and sometimes cows.”.
A loss of interest in this tradition of urban food production had crept over the years. Reasons cited include: the limited economic benefits, work opportunities in sectors besides agriculture, and the development of different forms of housing that are unfavourable for UA practices. The interest picked up again right along with the economic difficulties and long-lasting curfews under the first intifada, and difficult situations during second intifada . Food insecurity brought Palestinians back to the earlier practices of domestic agriculture. People who had not been involved in agriculture before, started to plant their gardens and lands. In parallel, small domestic animal farming gained in popularity. “Even when a long siege was imposed or the refugee camp was placed under curfew for a long time, local citizens provided vegetables, milk and other things to camp dwellers”(Lahm).
We can say that domestic animal-raising remained significant in Gaza in the period between the two intifadas and till now : more than 30,000 rabbits, 50,000 pigeons, 20,000 ducks/geese and 5,000 turkeys. 570 farms of meat chicken and 120 farms of egg chicken were registered in Gaza. 60 % of these farms were located within residential areas . An estimated 5000 sheep and goats were also raised, of which 2,500 inside homes or in nearby gardens, with the remaining 2,500 owned by Bedouins with an average of 10-15 units per family. There were 2,500 milk cows, of which 70 % are raised by families who own 5 cows or less; only 10 % belonged to farms/families who own 20 or more units.
Gaza urban agriculture workshop and committee in 1998
Agriculture in Gaza faces severe problems. Increasing pressure on land and water limit the capacity today, and even more the potentials of the sector tomorrow. Moreover, the society is confronted with a lack of significant alternative employment and export potentials in the other economical sectors. This awareness and the recognition of the gravity of the situation led to a search for alternatives beyond minor improvements. In this atmosphere of openness towards sound solutions, urban agriculture has come to be seen as incorporating important potentials for the future of Gazan agriculture.
As a result, a workshop on “The Future of Urban Agriculture in Gaza” was held in Gaza City at the end of 1998, and the Gaza Urban Agriculture Committee (GUAC) was subsequently established. The potentials of urban agriculture for enhanced food security, employment creation, small enterprise development and environmental management by productive use of urban wastes were acknowledged by a wide range of participants. Individual farmers, farmers union, representatives of governmental and non-governmental organisations, local authorities, researchers and academics have formulated their interest and intentions in developing UA in Gaza in several discussion papers. The three main objectives formulated as an outcome of the workshop are:
- * to secure the physical resources for UA with special emphasis on water and space
- * to enhance capacity building and development of human resources
- * to develop the institutional development to assist UA at different levels.
Three major stakeholder groups were identified: ministries and municipalities, individual farmers (men and women), NGO’s and universities. A major outcome of the workshop was an overall strategy that has been generated to promote and facilitate UA practices. A supportive legislative framework, more investments in securing safe resources by the authorities, capacity building and technical assistance by farmers and unions together with research, practical and logistical assistance and awareness-raising by universities and NGOs were considered to be major instruments towards creating an encouraging environment for UA practices. GUAC has remained the central consultative body, and the formulated strategy is serving as a general guideline to generate further annual action plans.
UA projects in Gaza
The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC)-Gaza, the leading Palestinian NGO involved in agricultural and rural development, has been the driving force in the creation and support of GUAC. In July 2000, PARC presented the first UA project “Urban agricultural activities in Gaza”. During the two years of project implementation, almost 200 locations received a complete collection of different local types of vegetables and fruit-bearing and flowering trees. This was developed according to a needs assessment conducted for seven types of location: houses located in urban areas, schools, kindergartens, health centres, hospitals, cemeteries and streets. 540 selected families (houses) received 5 egg chickens each. Almost 10,000 trees and seedlings have been delivered to 90 public locations and 100 families. Technical follow-up was conducted during the first three months. Leaflets have been produced to inform the beneficiaries and three debates/workshops served to discuss and evaluate the project. Direct objectives of the project were the greening of the different locations, generating food security and small-scale income generating activities, particularly for women, at the level of the household. Other objectives were, amongst others, awareness-raising about the benefits of UA.
In March 2003, a second project on “Supporting and encouraging initiatives of urban agriculture in Gaza Refugee Camps” is being proposed. This one-year project would run for one year in three refugee camps. The basic project strategy remains unchanged; 150 families with access to a rooftop or yard (50-150 m²) will be selected together with 24 public locations to receive trees, seedlings and seeds. Another 150 families will receive 10 domestic pigeons. Besides the workshops, the educational objective will be developed through the organisation of study tours for school pupils and the targeted families in the camps. Emphasis on participation at the grassroots in all stages of the project was added as a general aim of the project. Techniques of rainwater collection and safe handling of grey water are integrated as an important issue of education. The technical follow-up was extended throughout the whole duration of this second project. Improvement of local health and environment are proposed as the indicators to measure the sustainable impact of the project.
Gaza is still characterised by a rapid increase of population and expansion of cities and refugee camps. Large-scale, export-oriented agricultural production has reached its limits of land-use availability and, at the same time, is confronted with the socio-economic demands related to food insecurity and the need for income generation. Chemically intensive, unsustainable farming practices are leading to soil degradation, depletion and contamination of the vulnerable water resources. Increasing competition among urban needs makes soil and especially water very limited resources.
“Agriculture in Gaza is already more urban than rural” was one of the conclusions of the GUAC workshop in 1998, referring to the high degree of urbanisation of the area. An official at the Ministry of Planning went further by stating at that meeting: “All agriculture in Gaza can be considered to be urban agriculture.” The main conclusion of the workshop was that, considering the prevailing problems in the agricultural sector, the potentials for UA in Gaza simply cannot afford to be neglected. To cash on these potentials, GUAC aims at a wide-reaching strategy carried out by the active participation of stakeholders at all levels of society. Supportive policies, awareness raising, educational training and institutional development are, amongst others, tools that are considered to be preliminary steps towards promotion and facilitation of UA practices.
At regional level, PARC is working actively with other regional and international partners organizations to establish the first regional network for urban agriculture within MENA region, this network has been recently declared in a distinguished regional workshop organized last September.2005 in Beriut/Amman.
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