Every Sunday, at the Community First Siem Reap Campus, we train our future trainers, a group of young, highly motivated ladies who have volunteered to learn about aquaponics under the sole condition that they teach their peers in the countryside. This past Sunday, we built the bell siphon for our first 100% off-grid village system.
This training program is entirely free, and is composed of 10 orphaned young ladies, looking for sustainable solutions to live a better life by farming part of their food in the city while they pursue their respective studies. Some of them live on-campus at Community First and others live together nearby. Our most proficient students are our boarders, as they also help our field team manage current aquaponic systems onsite.
This program is made possible by the ongoing support of the Rotary Clubs of San Marino, Sierra Madre and Pasadena, all located in the District 5300 of Southern California. As such, our team also gathers after the training for an aquaponic lunch and a presentation as a "Friends of Rotary" group. This aspect of the program has since then brought regular guests to our bimonthly events over time.
connecting changemakers and friends of rotary
Every training session, we build a component of the aquaponic systems together. And our last element build is the bell siphon, a popular tool in designing aquaponic systems. This a key component as it is the one that uses simple physics to create a tidal effect in our growbeds, thus making sure the growing media provides both an aerobic and anaerobic environment to enable the bacterial life necessary to the aquaponic cycle to flourish. Checkout this video to see how it works:
We have a lot of exciting aquaponics projects at work here in Cambodia. We have experimental grow beds at the Tuk Vil farm, where we are testing KEM (Khmer Effective Microorganisms) in sustainable aquaponics systems to see how their presence alters the rate of growth of plants. The grow beds are all identical in their set up: they each have a cement pot of about 40 fish underneath, which feeds water in a circuit that flows from the container up to the bed itself where the seeds are planted in gravel.
Gravel is the first growing medium we used as an alternate for soil. Since gravel does not absorb water, it improves the flow of the system while allowing plants to take in more water for themselves. However, it is expensive to buy and transport gravel, making this option less accessible for villagers who typically live on less than one dollar per day. Since our aquaponics systems are meant to act as interventions for this population, other, more accessible and sustainable mediums became necessary to find. Luckily, we have recently had a breakthrough here at Community First in the discovery of a new growing medium that is locally available in abundant quantities and for almost no cost. It also already exists in all the villages that we are working in. This new growing medium is rice husk.
The objective of Community First aquaponics project is to provide individual families without resources the means of farming fish sustainably for their own consumption and for sale on the market. Although we intend to develop solutions applicable in any country, it is important to understand the local environment. Here is what we found during our initial investigation in Cambodia.
Cambodian inland fisheries are among the world’s largest and most diverse, accounting for about 12% of the country GDP. The Tonle Sap provides 400,000 tons of fish per year, valued at about $300M . Today, fish and fisheries are central to the life of the country, just as it was in the ancient Khmer empire.
The lower mekong basin provides the ideal environment for fish to grow at an accelerated rate during the rainy season. Cambodians celebrate the water festival (Bon Om Teuk) during the full moon of October or November, when the flow of Tonle Sap reverses its course to flow north into the great lake. This marks the beginning of the fishing season. The next three months are crucial as people must catch, preserve and store fish for the dry season. Fish is a major part of the Cambodian diet with an average consumption of about 2kg per person per month representing about 6,300 riels per person per month. However the catch fluctuates with the seasons. The catch of the Tonle Sap dai fishery in 2003/2004 was about half of that in 2002/2003, so the price of the most common fish, trey riel, rose more than threefold.
At the beginning of the rain season, when the fish swim upstream into the flooded plain of central Cambodia, they naturally settle in the rice fields. In addition to fish, these fields are home to a large number of other animal species such as crabs, shrimps, clams, snails and insects. Traditional rice farming incorporates fish in their production.