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Community Developed Aquaponics for Sustainable Food Production in Rural El Salvador

Community Developed Aquaponics for Sustainable Food Production in Rural El Salvador

Program: Dow Distinguished Awards
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Photo by @shawnanggg on Unsplash

Team Members

Dr. Kathleen Nolta (Department of Chemistry, College of LS&A), Samuel Tuck (Biomedical Engineering, College of Engineering); Sarah Baruch (Medical School); William Hirst (Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, College of LS&A)


Haciendita Uno (HU) is a small rural community located in the municipality of Suchitoto, in the Department of Cuscatlán, El Salvador. The residents of HU are poor rural farmers who produce basic grains and agro-industrial crops such as coffee and sugar cane. Other crops, such as vegetables, herbs and/or legumes, would result in better returns, but are not grown due to a shortage of land, a lack of irrigation, and continual increases in the cost of agrochemicals, as well as poor farm management which has resulted in soil nutrient imbalances. The resulting reality faced by small Salvadoran farmers is bleak - the majority remain well below the poverty level and furthermore suffer health problems due to diets consisting mostly of grain. The goal of this project is to give Salvadoran farmers the option to diversify their crops by introducing them to a new production method, aquaponics, which will provide opportunities for increased income and increased dietary intake of protein and micronutrients.

Aquaponics is the co-culture of fish and vegetables in a recirculating biofilter-based system (Fig 1). Since water is supplied to the vegetables from the bottom of the biofilter, evaporative losses are significantly reduced, allowing vegetables to be grown in a climate that cannot support conventionally field-grown vegetables. Additionally, the conversion of fish waste by the biofilter into forms of nitrogen suitable for plant uptake eliminates the need for the application of costly fertilizers. Furthermore, a well-managed aquaponics system discharges zero waste water to the environment, which is a huge improvement compared to traditional recirculating aquaculture, which relies on discharging large volumes of nitrogen- laden water to the environment. Aquaponics is an innovative organic production method which is well-suited for use in developing countries where land and water are scarce and sustainable production methods are necessary.

The goal of this project is to conduct an expanded pilot of the single family home sized aquaponics system. The initial pilot was successful, but it was operated by agricultural engineers with specialized knowledge. This project will train ordinary Salvadoran families in aquaponics, a production method wholly unknown to them. Through this expanded pilot, we will be able to develop a set of best practices for training and system operation, which can be utilized by others in the future.