Home-grown fish is now a regular part of the meal in Chiquimula’s households.
Photo: FAO/Carlos Zaparolli
Fish farming in one of the world’s driest areas
A rainwater harvesting project in Guatemala’s dry corridor is putting fish on the plates.
Imagine living in one of the driest areas on the planet. What little rain there is falls over the space of a few months, yielding around 700 millimeters in total each year. A population of 1.2 million has to survive on 65 percent less water than the rest of their compatriots, on a traditional staple diet of corn and beans.
But what a difference a rainwater harvesting system makes. Now the villagers of this arid eastern part of Guatemala are able to cultivate fish and snails to eat and sell in local markets, and have not only increased the yield of their annual harvest, but also have branched out into growing more vegetables than they were previously able.
Before 2016, the municipality of Chiquimula in Guatemala’s Corridor Seco had no local water supply: the nearest came from a spring on a mountain several miles away from the villages. The local farmers were suffering an average of three harvest fails in every five years. And with an average income of less than US$2 per day, the community did not have the money to put in an irrigation system in place.
Collecting rainwater for fish farming and irrigation
Thanks to a Sida grant, an ingenious FAO project, done in conjunction with Guatemala’s agriculture ministry, changed everything. The idea was simple: create reservoirs in which to capture what little rainfall there was during the months of May to July and September to October and keep it from evaporating. This is not an easy task when temperatures in summer can reach 42 ºC.
“Until last year, we suffered from drought,” explains farmer Hipólito García. “But now with this tank and the water that I can capture and save, I maintain my orchard. It’s a great benefit to plant these crops that we are now going to pick. We already have water to produce food in the dry season.”
But it is the introduction of reservoirs containing snails and tilapia, a freshwater fish that can survive in shallow water, that has revolutionised the dry corridor.
“We never used to eat fish,” says Antonio Marcos Hernández.
He explains that a fish supper would cost both time and money. It entailed hitching a ride in someone’s truck for a two-hour round trip to buy enough for him and his wife and children and put a sizeable dent into the family finances.
Tilapia and snails in reservoirs built from cement or car tires
Now Antonio has his own fish reservoir, which he made from a mixture of cement, sand and wire mesh.
“We recently took ten fish from the tank, I gave two to the boy who helped me catch them, two to my mom, and the rest we ate ourselves. One for each member of my family.”
Over 200 families have their own tanks in which they are breeding fish and snails. There are also community reservoirs with a capacity of 450 000 litres, from which over 1 000 families benefit.
One such community reservoir was built by 170 women from the village of Plan El Jocote, including 40-year-old Rosaura Díaz Felipe.
“This used to be an empty ravine,” she says, pointing down at the steep slopes outside the village. “With the support of the project we built the reservoir with the intention of collecting water to irrigate the plants and recently introduced 300 fingerlings of tilapia as well as snails into the reservoir.”
Rosaura’s reservoir has been constructed using a wall of 1 400 old car tires.
"In addition to fish and snails, we want to plant vegetables," says Rosaura Díaz Felipe.
Other communities copy the scheme
Ministry official Nery Carrera is more than impressed:
“These families have received training and already have a different vision. They promote family farming and produce their own food through the use of these technologies,” she said.
“The initial idea of the project was to promote the consumption of fish for the families. However the fish also act as an integrated pest management practice, since they consume mosquito and fly larvae,” says local FAO worker Gustavo García.
It has taken just one year for these communities to reap the benefits of the rainwater harvesting scheme. Knowledge of the project is spreading and more communities in the region are adopting the plan.
Between May and October 2017, the scheme captured 9.1 million litres of water – enough to irrigate an area of land equivalent to six football pitches.
“We are poor. When the plants grow, these products can be sold and we take the money to our home and give food to our children,” says Vidalina Augustín of the El Plan Jocote scheme.