Fishing for Food Security

In the desert region of Tindouf in southern Algeria, summer days regularly exceed 100 degrees. Day after day, the sun beats down on sandy expanses that are home to little more than a network of refugee camps. But in August 2021, a group of Sahrawi refugees were bustling inside a white-walled building studded with rectangular pools filled with tons of tilapia—literally.

The camps in Tindouf host one of the most food insecure populations in the world. 30 percent of the population experiences food insecurity, another 58 percent is at risk of food insecurity, and most food in the camps is donated from outside. But as international attention to the Western Sahara conflict has declined and the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have created supply chain issues, the World Food Programme has had to significantly scale back food rations. In response, some in the camps have turned to fish farming to meet their food needs.

Despite their desert environment, the camps lie on top of an expansive network of aquifers. Although much of the water requires significant processing to be potable for humans, tilapia thrive in warm, mineral-rich water. Drawing on this reserve of groundwater, a group of 15 refugees in the Nkhaila camp developed a fish farm and harvested their first haul of 1.4 tons of fish in August 2021. By 2023, that number reached an estimated seven tons.

Although farming this much fish is water intensive, the tilapia are far more efficient converting feed to protein than other animals. Meager grain rations go further raising fish rather than livestock.

Sahrawis in Tindouf are prioritizing food security over water conservation. As structural water scarcity increasingly constrains their daily lives, Sahrawis will have to keep fishing for sustainable solutions.

Martin Pimentel
Program Manager and Research Associate, Middle East Program