Working in three IDP camp sites in A’zaz and Jarablus in Northwest Syria, this pilot project tested the viability of creating vegetable gardens to grow food irrigated in part by harvested rainwater and grey water. Growing plots varied in size from home gardens to community gardens in A’zaz and a school garden in Jarablus. The aims included introducing regenerative strategies to improve food security, mental health and community cohesion. The project started with training events including five successful webinars for our INGO sponsors and the production of a grey water booklet by SOILS Permaculture Association Lebanon to supplement their food growing guide for training the camp residents to successfully build gardens and grow food.
The gardens were successfully established with food grown, harvested and eaten. The gardens were highly popular with camp residents, with many more requests for participation than the pilot could facilitate. The pilot provided for a group of 12 children growing at school, 70 householders gardening outside their homes and 25 gardeners in the community gardens. Bi weekly mentoring visits were undertaken by our partners while Re-Alliance conducted monitoring and evaluation and the production of learning materials including an NGO guide to using harvested rain and grey water.
Research has shown the benefits of gardening to those living in temporary settlements by providing fresh and nutritious food, meaningful activity, a sense of belonging or home, and feelings of well-being, particularly in the wake of trauma. It has also shown how replenishing soils, creating healthy water cycles, planting trees and minimising waste can have an equally positive impact on both human and ecological health. In areas of limited rainfall and high temperatures, nearly all food crops will need additional irrigation water to supplement rainfall.
By identifying and promoting simple, low tech options for capturing and re-using grey water and rain water for irrigation, and creating compost from food waste, growing food can become an accessible option for many households.
Impact on Planet
Creating vegetable gardens in refugee camps builds healthy soils through composting food wastes and sinking and storing water in the ground, improving the ecological health of the area. Plants encourage pollinating insects, a vital part of animal food webs, which add to the local biodiversity. Using grey water to grow food reduces the amount of waste water which has to be processed, reducing carbon emissions and the pollution associated with waste-disposal. Harvesting rain water holds water within the site and can reduce the damage created by run-off which can pour across sites, further degrading soils and damaging ecosystems. Growing plants is beneficial to supporting healthy water cycles by preventing soil erosion and increasing groundwater levels as well as by releasing water into the air through transpiration. As long as growing methods are organic - avoiding pesticide and fertiliser use and creating compost from local waste foods - growing food can be a carbon positive activity, actively reducing climate change by sequestering carbon in healthy soils and plant life.
Impact on People
Meaningful activity is an essential part of being a happy and healthy person. Work, whether paid or unpaid, can facilitate positive exchanges between people, strengthening communities, giving purpose, satisfaction and learning as well as a means to provide for basic needs. Many IDPs and refugees are not permitted or able to work, which can further erode the sense of identity that the trauma of becoming displaced can cause. In the absence of paid work, food growing projects can provide meaningful activity with tangible benefits. Designing, planting and tending a garden can create a feeling of home and ownership of place, improving mental health by bringing beauty and life into an otherwise barren and impersonal environment. Eating fresh, homegrown food can improve health and nutrition and allow people to create a taste of home by growing favorite foods that they may not otherwise have access to. Growing food can reduce household spending on food and creating compost from food waste and using grey water can further save money by reducing waste disposal costs. If surplus food is grown, it can also be sold or exchanged to supplement incomes. Sinking and storing rain water and using grey water can reduce the prevalence of standing water, often a breeding ground for waterborne and vector borne diseases, thereby creating healthier environments. Sharing knowledge about how to grow food without inputs in unfamiliar environments where the terrain may be different and the space reduced, will maximize yield for minimum cost. In the Syrian context we discovered that grey water reuse for food growing was commonly practiced before displacement so people were especially keen to start growing again and were innovative in their ideas for grey water reuse.
Community gardens can strengthen community cohesion and can also be used to bring host and refugee communities together. School gardens were popular with children because they gave an opportunity to learn about the natural world outside the classroom and build skills for saving water and growing food that they could share with their families and continue at home.
Root causes of mass migration often have links to climate change, water stress and the conflicts that arise from competing for increasingly scarce natural resources. It is a sad irony that refugee and IDP camps often perpetuate the problems of resource depletion and unsustainable practices in a bid to provide the vital services needed to keep people alive. Water is often trucked into camps and wastes pumped and trucked away, trees can be cut down for firewood and the earth cleared and compacted to make way for shelters and roads. It is, however, possible for human activity to improve and nurture the natural world. This often involves a process of turning ‘wastes’ into resources. Growing food using harvested water gives meaningful activity and nutritious food to people, while creating more beautiful green open spaces, reduces the financial and ecological costs of waste disposal and increases the biological health of the area.
A regenerative approach uses planning and good design to make the best use of available resources and minimise the need for expensive inputs brought in from outside. Gardens need water and good soil. Capturing and reusing surplus water and turning organic waste into compost can provide a source of both and reduce the need for safe disposal of these.
Our pilot projects showed that there is a high level of interest and engagement from camp residents to grow their own food and with few inputs gardens can be created and fresh food can be grown.
Creating home gardens outside shelters is the easiest to achieve because it requires little land, less community co-ordination and simple water harvesting techniques can be undertaken with available resources. However, the volume of food produced is limited by the amount of land available.
To grow at a larger scale requires plots of land to be put aside for community gardens or allotments. This is more easily done at the camp construction phase so that it can be placed alongside community buildings which can provide a supply of harvested grey and rainwater.
Approaching the host community or local authorities may provide access to more land, and sharing land can help build relationships between communities, but does require coordination and facilitation.
Promoting and advertising demonstration gardens which can be visited by local residents allows people to learn from others and replicate gardens outside their own shelters. This allows organic growth of ideas and ensures gardens continue to be constructed and maintained beyond the length of the project.
What's Next for this Project?
As part of the project a guide book was produced to encourage other INGOs to implement food growing projects in camps and settlements using harvested rain and grey water. We are actively looking for partners to trial this guide with please get in contact if you would like to participate. Our partner organisation, Syrian Academic Expertise, have produced a series of podcasts in Arabic to promote food growing within refugee and IDP camps and have been accessed by thousands of listeners. We are anticipating that the food growing projects within the existing camps will be continued and expanded, led by our partners Syrian Academic Expertise.
Guidelines for NGOs - Food Growing In Camps and Settlements: Collecting, Storing and Using Rainfall and Grey Water
Guidelines for Camp and Settlement Residents - Gardening with Grey and Rain Water
Presentations for Webinar Series:
The Principles and Foundations of a Regenerative Response
See the all the recordings of these webinars on our Youtube playlist: