Thanksgiving thought: Hydroponics as an aid tool?

by Jon Thompson on November 27, 2008

Back in early 1994, during a year off from college, I found myself in the Eritrean village of Tio.  Tio is a beautiful little town on the Red Sea coast that lies equidistant between Asab and Massawa.  I had been riding on the back of a flat bed truck from the southern port city Asab for about a week before we became mired in the sand southwest of town.

Tio is situated on a small, low-lying archipelago that juts out into the sea ending in a small hump which was inhabited by a small garrison of Eritrean soldiers.  My traveling companion and I were lucky enough to secure two beds in the small health post that was unoccupied.  The town is surrounded by the beautiful turquoise waters of the Red Sea and I would sit on the bluff and watch turtles and sharks cruise the reef for food.

Photo of Tio by A.Korzeniowski

Photo of Tio by A.Korzeniowski

The city had been hit hard by the war.  The local mosque had one wall collapsed by a round launched from an Ethiopian naval vessel and crates of ammunition were slowly decaying in the surf, remnants of a failed beach assault, their contents ominously hissing as the gunpowder mixed with the salt water.

If you looked inland from our small perch all you could see was baking  sand and rugged brown hills which were covered with acacia trees and camels.  As with most of the Denakil Desert the heat was brutal with daytime temperatures somewhere in the 100-120F range.

We ate mostly what our hosts fed us which consisted of engera and wat.  Occasionally we would manage some fish and a few oranges which we bought from the woman who had ridden in on the truck with us but otherwise produce was basically non-existent.  It was clear from the looking at the children, the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of public health, that their diets were not up to par with those of children in more fertile regions.  (I would witness this same phenomenon in Ethiopia many years later, during my time with MSF, where I witnessed children with an seeming abundance of food suffering from malnutrition.)

I couldn’t but wonder how we could turn this small town into an oasis and at the same time pump some quality produce into the local market.  Perhaps it was my desire to sit in cool shade of a leafy green tree or to finally stop moving and set down some roots in this beautiful little town (seriously) that made me want to add some green to the landscape.  Regardless, it was clear that with the abundance of sunlight and some creativity it would not be too hard to make a massive difference in the community.  (Right now I am going to ignore the ‘Why the hell would you want to do that!?’ question and finish my thought.)

A recent AP story which covers the resurgence of hydroponic gardening as a valuable addition to the current urban farming trend prompted me to recount this story.  With the portability of hydroponic systems, their widespread popularity in the region (particularly Israel), and their incredible output potential it seems worthwhile to examine whether or not hydroponic systems could prove a valuable tool for combating malnutrition and stimulating local economies.  For example, food grown on the coast of Eritrea could easily be transported across the Red Sea to Jeddah or sold locally in Asmara, Massawa or Asab.  One small non-profit, The Institute of Simplified Hydroponics, is already trying to make a difference.

Given we’re all about to sit down to a plentiful feast it makes sense to take a minute to think abut those that have less.  This Thanksgiving I’ll be thinking about those folks back in Tio and wondering how well they are eating.

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