A Collaborative Event at the Urban Foodshed:

The EM/MENA Project: “Going Beyond Sustainable: water. soil. land. food.”


                  presented by Melina Nicolaides, a Cyprus-based curator and activist


EM/MENA refers to the broad geographical area that encompasses the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa, a region that possesses not only one of the fastest growing populations, but has also been identified as the first region of the world that will remain waterless in the future due largely to manmade climate change. Currently,14 of the world's 33 most water stressed countries are located within this area. Despite sub-regional differences, this area is confronted with many similar but interconnected challenges, such as growing resource demand, soil degradation, desertification, and biodiversity loss. As the health of ecosystems from the wetlands of the Eastern Mediterranean to the Sahara Desert are endangered, so is the future availability of water, food, and energy to communities across this region. The impact of these realities is that to varying degrees, people face a combination of unprecedented challenges to the welfare of their environments, livelihoods, food availability, to human health, and even their cultures.

At the Seoul Biennale, the EM/MENA Project will contribute to the vision of the Urban Foodshed by bringing an introduction to the concerns of, and solutions for this geographical region, as a counterpart to the issues raised regarding current Korean food systems and other future resource challenges. Examples from this region of the world already suffering from a combination of the most extreme conditions—and predictions—for the future, can serve as evidence-based and adaptable models to establish that “beyond sustainable” change and remediation can occur in any location, and in any climate of the planet. To achieve this goal, the collective effort must focus on regenerating living systems—water, soil, and food production—as a basis to long-term transformation, resource management, and protection from the ongoing effects of climate change.

The EM/MENA Project originated from the intention to contribute to the effort of connecting the knowledge of institutions and researchers working towards finding regionally-applicable and resilient solutions for the future, through an exchange not only between countries, but with people engaged “on the ground”. To achieve this, the EM/MENA Project is working with a series of experts from academia and science research centers, and with practicing agro-ecologists of the region. The long-term objective of this approach is to link current studies on regional challenges, to the realities of everyday life and the real-world experiences of innovative individuals and small farming communities. Combining scientific study with creative nature-based solutions that set into place natural cycles which increase the growth of all living systems, will create a stronger base of know-how, to deal with current challenges of food, energy and water security for the projected climactic conditions of the region.

This perspective also aims to emphasize the cultural overlaps of this part of the world, acknowledging the need to consider traditional knowledge in the creation of sustainable development and solutions for the future. In this region, is the knowledge of those currently most impacted by climate change, the climate- vulnerable groups, who already have an understanding of how to cope with environmental variability. They maintain practices to harvest water, and grow food based on working with nature and particular local geographical and climactic conditions, rather than modern means which often are counterproductive.

Despite exceptionally high rates of precipitation in the northern coastal Guilan province of Iran, the use of the ‘farm pond’ by Guilani farmers to collect rainwater for irrigation has been replaced by advanced technologies and long-distance water transfer systems. Due to modernization and growing urban areas, these farm ponds have now lost their traditional role in the agricultural activities and fabric of regional communities. Photo: H. Bazargan, 2017.

Combining this knowledge-base of efficient traditional practices, with the technology and research being carried out on the institutional level—which has a more direct contact with the policy- making sectors in the countries of this region—may also help produce a more human dimension for the transitional effort. Future transformations will need input from all sectors, in order to make possible the implementation of appropriate strategies and practices for developing resilient, diversified and productive systems for the communities of this region.

At the Urban Foodshed, the EM/MENA project will bring a solutions-oriented perspective with documentary material and live presentations. It will present practical knowledge and innovative examples from several countries of this region that discard conventional and industrial farming practices, to establish that current agri-food systems are, in reality, deepening water and food insecurity. The alternative, is the mainstreaming of agro-ecological principles, through which it is possible to empower people anywhere to restore their natural environments, to collect rainwater, to sequester carbon, increase soil organic matter, re-establish biodiversity, mitigate against flooding, and increase drought-resistance. The long-term objective will be to rehabilitate damaged ecosystems, and replace them with productive and resilient systems capable of withstanding external shocks, such as extreme weather events or unpredictable population influx, that are characteristic of the region, and many other parts of the world. These methods can not only create productive food systems that will ensure both future water and food security, but can also ultimately reverse the effects of climate change.

The Al Baydha Project is located in rural western Saudi Arabia, at the foothills of the Hijaz Mountain range, an area with extreme desert conditions. It is a land restoration and heritage preservation project led by agro-ecologist Neal Spackman, whose overall environmental goal for the project is the reversal of desertification. Pictured here are small-scale water management structures and terraces that help slow rainwater so that it can be absorbed into the dry ground. These are part of the project’s permaculture design implementation of different water harvesting techniques to create the conditions to begin greening the desert. Photos: N.Spackman, 2011/2015/2015.

Invited guests at the Urban Foodshed acknowledge the need to combine scientific strategy + real world action in order to face the enormity of the challenges ahead, and the wisdom of bringing together diverse knowledge systems and worldviews in global climate policy and decision-making regarding solutions for water, food and energy. At the Foodshed, they will personally exchange experiences, hands-on knowledge and practices with their Korean counterparts—scientists and farmers—and with the general public of Seoul.

The EM/MENA Project’s live presentations:

Atsas Organic Farm is partially located in the UN Buffer Zone, in the most water- challenged part of the island of Cyprus. Organically certified, and based on 50 hectares of land, the olive tree is the main part of the farm’s multifunction diverse agro-ecosystem. Photo: N.Netien, 2015.

Nicolas Netien of Atsas Organic Farm, environmental engineer, soil biologist, and authority on regenerative farming and dryland ‘integrated agro-ecology’ systems, shares his knowledge on topics such as biomimicry, and how the agro-ecological system has a very crucial role to play in our future. These methods not only bring diversity to ecosystems, protect soil, water and seeds, create food abundance for self-sufficiency, grow nutrient-dense food, but can also reverse the effects of climate change. Netien demonstrates how these methods can be applied and integrated into the dense urban environment and fabric of the city of Seoul, such as with soil-less food systems. Additionally, he presents the science and biological strategies behind High Phenolic olive oil, and reveals how, through his use of the farm’s limited water resources, its soil quality, and geology, he has produced the world’s most nutritious olive oil.

Independently analyzed at the Department of Pharmacology and Natural Product Chemistry of the University of Athens, using NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) to measure phenolic content, the Atsas extra virgin organic olive oil recently set the record for the highest concentrations of oleocanthal and the highest total phenolic compounds ever recorded. This granted it not only ‘pharmaceutical grade’ health and nutrition certification, but also officially classified it as the healthiest olive oil in the world. Photo: N.Netien, 2017.

Unripened olives of the ‘kalamon’ variety ready to be milled at Atsas Farm. Contemporary scientific research has confirmed statements made by Greek physician, pharmacologist, botanist Dioscorides ca. 60AD, that olives must be picked while still unripened to have the maximum healing properties.

Photo: N.Netien, 2017.

Savvas Hadjixenophontos, electronics engineer and inventor, will share his experiences with renewable energies, and the promise of the world’s next energy systems—where oil, gas and petrol no longer play a crucial role—that will help deal with the world’s growing energy consumption. An ongoing project in the Foodshed, will be a demonstration of his innovative ‘Fornelia’ Portable Solar Oven, which requires only the energy of the sun to cook meat, vegetables, even bread, through a process that is a much healthier cooking method that traditional ovens, wood burning or coal. The solar cooking method can be used year-round in the EM/MENA region, and by over 80% of the world’s population. The energy-efficient Fornelia, aims to contribute to the global energy transition to a future without carbon-based fossil fuels, whose over-use is causing devastating deforestation, land and air-quality degradation, and increasingly adverse impacts on our climate, across the globe.

The Fornelia Portable Solar Oven invented by Savvas Hadjixenophontos. The objective of his solar oven is to harness solar power, which is clean, renewable and efficient energy, for the daily cooking of food and boiling of water. The hope is to provide an alternative to the wood and charcoal used by 3 billion people throughout the world, which generate up to 16 million tons of CO2 emissions per meal.

Photo: M.Nicolaides, 2017.

Dr. Salah A. Soliman of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, addresses the ongoing environmental threats to the fertile farmlands of the Nile Delta, a low-lying zone on the northern coast of Egypt, where climate change and rising levels of the Mediterranean have affected vegetation, threatened water resources, agricultural activity and coastal populations. He will discuss how agricultural practices of local farmers in these vulnerable lands have been changing since the early 20th century, as a result of saltwater intrusion into the Delta area. Dr. Soliman will also address the current food crisis in Egypt, where food insecurity is epitomized in rising prices even for government-subsidized “balady” bread. In recent years, food prices have been rising by 38.6% annually, and have led to Egypt’s ranking in third place among Arab countries on the Global Hunger Index for 2016.

In Marsa Matrouh, on the northern-western coast of Egypt, the Bedouin population implements traditional nature-based water catchment techniques through the construction of different types of dykes. Rainwater collection is the sole source for the irrigation for the farming of olive and fig trees. Pictured is the Valley of Kharoba, one of the 218 valleys of this area, showing multiple water collection practices used by local farmers.
Photo: M. El Baroudy, 2017.

Growing vegetables at Habiba, a permaculture- based farm in Nuweiba, Egypt, one of a series of small desert plantations with plant diversification in the area. Habiba is a community-based farm that aims to benefit the people of the South Sinai region by demonstrating the benefits of organic permaculture farming practices in the desert sands. Photos: M.Nicolaides, 2017.

Dr. Manfred A. Lange of the Future Earth MENA Regional Center discusses the multiple impacts of climate change on water availability in the countries of this region, which are particularly sensitive to changes in the water balance, and to water scarcity as caused by altered climate conditions of lower precipitation, higher temperatures, increasing extreme events of drought and floods, and the overexploitation of existing groundwater bodies. He will also put into context the distinct challenges faced by the arid and semi-arid regions of the EM/MENA area, the interconnected nature of water, energy, and food (WEF Nexus), and how these pose a threat to the futures of people living in urban and rural areas of this region.

 Water has always been precious in most countries of the EM/MENA Region, and scarcity often leads to drastic measures.

The 400km long Zayandeh-Rood, the largest river of the Iranian Plateau that flows all the way to through the Si-o-seh Polbridge of the city of Isfahan, is entirely dried up due to its diversion upstream to provide irrigation water for agriculturalproduction. Photo: M.A. Lange, 2016. 

Other introductory regional examples will bring highlights from Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other locations, and touch upon issues such as: seed saving and future food security; permaculture-based soil- restoration and reversal of desertification; aquaponics and soil-less farming techniques for semi-arid areas; regional composting techniques and beekeeping practices; traditional climate-based water harvesting methods; ecosystem restoration and growing food in desert conditions; citizen initiatives to contribute to food and water crises; high phenolic olive oil as a natural resource and commodity of the ancient Hellenic world.

Beekeeping workshop in Saidoun, Jezzine, South Lebanon organized by SOILS Permaculture Association, within the framework of their AFIR Beekeeping and Nature Discovery Center, in collaboration with APIFLORDEV. Photo: SOILS, 2016.

The drought-resistant olive tree represents one of the most historical connections of the EM/MENA region.
Its fruit has always been of agricultural importance in the Mediterranean Basin through to the Arabian Peninsula. Pictured is the Valley of Eleonas, the ancient olive grove on the island of Aegina, where trees are surrounded by wild shrubs and aromatics, in an area that has had little human intervention. Many of the trees still bearing fruit are over 2,500 years old, and date to a time when the Greeks were aware of their curative capabilities. The olives and their oil have been used as food and as medicine since ancient times. Photo: M.Nicolaides, 2017.

Another issue that will also be addressed within the parameters of resource management in the EM/MENA region, is that of water privatization. The focus will be the current threat to the water supply of Greece, through a presentation of primary source and digital material from the Syndicate of EYDAP Athens Water Company and from the citizen’s initiative, Save Greek Water. Both of these entities have played a leading role in opposing the corporate privatization of water resources and distribution systems, within the ongoing fight to keep the “people’s water” in the hands of the Greek public. This struggle is representative of the current effort of Greece to hold onto its last resource within the climate of drastic austerity measures of the past seven years, imposed on the country to deal with its debt crisis. These conditions have forced the government to sell off resources, state assets, public utilities, and most of its economically viable companies. The case of Greek water also exemplifies the ongoing global debate regarding the justifiable ownership of water resources, water management services, and who should be the rightful and legitimate provider of water to a city or a to a nation.

The historical reservoir and dam of Marathon in the district of Attica, Greece, is under the jurisdiction of EYDAP Athens Water Company. The dam was built in 1929 along with its long supply tunnel, and became the main provider of water for the city of Athens. It has a maximum capacity of 41,000,000 m3. Photo: M.Nicolaides, 2016.

A banner placed by the syndicate of employees of EYDAP at the Dam site, “Water is NOT a commodity, it is a natural and common resource for all, IT IS NOT FOR SALE”, in protest to the threat of the privatization of the Athens municipal water supply. Photo: M.Nicolaides, 2016.

At the Urban Foodshed, Eftihia Nestorides a General Director at the Athens Water Company speaks on behalf of EYDAP about the history of water in Athens and the greater district of Attica. Moreover, she will put into context the current situation in Athens, and how the privatization of water sources and distribution services, looms under the pressure of the prolonged economic crisis and austerity in Greece.

Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development & Environment

Republic of Cyprus