The rooftops of the dense urban landscape of Amman, Jordan, may not be a likely setting for a green revolution, but if Bashar Humeid and his "freedom machine" have their way, they soon will be.
They will not only produce food, collect water, save energy and take people off the power grid, but are also geared to create an embryo for what Bashar calls "infrastructure to freedom".
He hopes to transform residents from consumers into producers of their own food and energy.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) reported in the State of Food Insecurity in the World Report (2011) that the urban poor are particularly vulnerable to current global increases in food prices. With 80 per cent of people in Jordan concentrated in urban centres and around 40 per cent of the overall population residing in Amman, Bashar's idea has its own distinct appeal.
His invention, a humble greenhouse made of recycled materials and built on a rooftop, consists of a flourishing ecosystem. Inside the greenhouse, little fish swim in a tank surrounded by beds of mint, strawberry and lettuce. What we are seeing, says Bashar, is the key to creating a year-round source of fresh, local food in Amman and other cities in the Arabia.
The system used in the greenhouse is called aquaponics, which is a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics. It encourages growing plants in a solution of water and nutrients, sans soil.
In aquaponics, fish waste provides a food source for the plants and they in turn provide a natural filter for the fish. This creates a mini ecosystem where both plants and fish thrive. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertiliser for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish faeces and urine. One of the many advantages of the system is the significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilisers and also the fact that the system can be run without pesticides. Additionally, since the environment is spacious and clean, it can do without antibiotics.
It is the huge reduction of up to 90 per cent in freshwater use compared with conventional soil farming; however, that is the main attraction for the system in a region that is suffering from chronic water shortages. According to the Arab Development Challenges Report 2011 by the United Nations Development Programme, available renewable fresh water resources per capita in the Arab world is among the lowest worldwide and the scarcity of water is becoming a constraint on development. High population growth, the depletion of groundwater reserves and the impact of climate change are likely to further aggravate this situation.
Not only does the "freedom machine" system drastically reduce the usage of water, but it also works as a rainwater collector. The roof of the greenhouse harvests rainwater through a piping system. Water is then stored in a big tank and used to irrigate the aquaponics system.
Jordan relies heavily on imported energy and last year fuel costs rose by more than 40 per cent. The government lifted its fuel subsidy in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit in order to secure a US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund. The price of gas, used for cooking and heating, rose from 6.5 Jordanian dinars (Dh34) per cylinder to 10 (Dh52). As a result, many poor families now cannot afford to heat their homes.
Bashar's "freedom machine" promises to alleviate the suffering of such families. The winters in Jordan are very cold, but with a lot of sunshine the greenhouse receives more solar heat energy than is needed to grow plants, he says. The excess heat is captured and transported to the lower floors through a ventilation system.
"During last winter, we cut down on our gas bills by utilising the excess energy to heat the rooms underneath the freedom machine," he says. The greenhouse also protects the rooftop during the summer months thus cooling it and cutting down air-conditioning costs. "The roof of the greenhouse has a revolving cover that shades the plants from the scorching sun and naturally, the roof also gets shade and that keeps the house cool," he says.
Bashar became interested in sustainable development and green living after working for eight years as a journalist at DW (Germany's international broadcaster) and ECSSR. Chasing what may have sounded like a quixotic idea, he later left his job as an editor specialised in energy and environmental issues at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research to start a non-profit enterprise.
Named Meezan, the organisation developed low-tech methods for building, farming and energy/water saving. The freedom machine is one of its inventions. According to Bashar, "Meezan seeks to become a contact point for local communities for matters related to sustainable urban farming and water and energy saving methods. Meezan's aim is to convert all rooftops of Jordan and the region into productive spaces."
The idea of the freedom machine started after Bashar started questioning the modern economic policies of consumerism.
"In the Arab world, nowadays, we have economic experts drumming into our heads that we should grow our economies by not only bringing in more foreign investments but also that through consumerism we can have democracy and freedom. But how can we be free if we depend on others for everything, our energy, our water, our food? In my opinion, the definition of freedom is when we live in harmony with our planet, like in earth ships, and become producers, not consumers."
However, he realised that he faced a challenge with building an "earthship", which are houses built of recycled materials and are self-sufficient in energy, without using fossil fuels.
"The earthship needs vast spaces to be built, which is not realistic in our densely populated areas with scarce land. My team and I found a solution, which we called the 'Urban Ship', where we modify our houses to represent the functions of an earthship. We also take the main component of the earthship, which is the glasshouse, and transform it into the freedom machine, which has multiple uses and is installed on the roof."
According to Bashar, the cost of a freedom machine is between 1,000 to 4,000 Jordanian dinars (Dh5,184 to Dh10,368) depending on the materials used. "We keep the costs low as we do not need any imported materials or expensive foreign expertise. And we start reaping the benefits immediately with a 25 per cent savings on heating bills during the winter and 400 dinars' worth of harvest from the fish and vegetables."
The freedom machine is unique, according to Bashar, because it is a local solution that is created to suit the local environment. "A lot of environmental solutions in the region fail because they are imported from other environments that is different to ours," he points out.
Currently, there are seven machines that have been installed in different parts of Jordan and one in a university in Switzerland.
Bashar believes that the world is on the cusp of a new revolution.
"My dream is for us in the Arab world to work together to transform our region into the centre of this new revolution and become a new economic and political model to the whole world," he says.
Only time will tell if he and the freedom machine have lived up to their promise.
Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry is a journalist based in Sharjah who writes on culture, heritage and current affairs