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WFP uses new tech to fight refugee food shortages in Jordan

Jordan is home to an estimated 3 million refugees, and the country's harsh terrain makes supplying food for them difficult. But to combat the food shortages, the U.N. World Food Program is using technologies like iris scans to track refugee spending habits and hydroponics to grow livestock feed. Christopher Livesay reports as part of our "Future of Food" series with Pulitzer Center support.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    According to the United Nations, there are nearly 26 million refugees worldwide. Nearly seven million of them are Syrian.

    Even after they have long fled conflicts in their home countries, high poverty and unemployment mean they are still struggling to feed themselves. In the first of two reports from the middle east, special correspondent Christopher Livesay takes us to Jordan, where the United Nations World Food Program is using technology and digital innovations to better provide food to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

    This report is part of our ongoing 'Future of Food' series with support from the Pulitzer Center.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Jordan is home to nearly 3 million refugees, which makes up roughly 30 percent of the country's population. The refugees here come from various countries including Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Iran…. And more than 650,000 of them are Syrian refugees that fled their country's civil war. Eighty percent of Syrian refugee households here struggle with what's called "food insecurity" … the inability to secure reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

    This surge in population…Combined with the dry, harsh weather… Makes growing enough food here extremely difficult.

  • Chris Livesay:

    In order to feed the entire population, Jordan has to import more than 90 percent of its food. And as for water… it's running out.

  • Khaled Al-Hisa:

    Jordan faces water scarcity, even drinking water is not always available.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world.

    Khaled Al-Hisa is a director in Jordan's ministry of agriculture.

  • Khaled Al-Hisa:

    Syrian refugees have increased the demand and pressure on the natural resources we have in Jordan. The government has to think outside the box.

  • Chris Livesay:

    In this case, that means trying to find a better way of growing food. To do it, the country is working with the United Nations' World Food Program.

    Jacqueline Degroot is head of WFP's Jordan program. This unit grows barley hydroponically, using water but no soil. The barley is used as animal feed.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    So the seeds are put here in one of the trays. After a couple of days, the seeds immediately start growing. You can already see some sprouting happening.

  • Chris Livesay:

    The seeds are placed in trays and watered for just 30 seconds a day. In seven days, the barley is fully grown. And in a country given to droughts, this uses 90 percent less water than traditional methods do.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    So this is at the end of the cycle. So this is ready to be eaten by animals.

  • Chris Livesay:

    And so you're trying to roll this out for refugees living in tents.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    This high tech unit is really meant to do the research. So we know the best way to roll it out into a much smaller low tech units that are locally sourced, that are much cheaper, obviously, and therefore it's going to be rolled out in the whole country.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Got it. So it's high tech now, so it can be low tech later.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    Exactly.

  • Chris Livesay:

    The low tech hydroponic units consist of simple plastic walls… with rows of bins inside. They produce lush, green fodder used to feed animals including cows… and camels.

    One key component of this program is teaching local refugees how to grow the food and maintain the units themselves.

  • Hoda Ahmad Ismail:

    We wash the seeds, we plant it and we harvest it one week later. We sell the barley and we make money. When I first came to Jordan, the living conditions were very difficult. Thankfully things got better — I started working in hydroponics and then things at home improved.

  • Chris Livesay:

    So far, WFP is running its hydroponics program for refugees in seven countries. The influx of refugees in this country has put a burden on the already-tight job market, so creating employment opportunities is critical. In Jordan, the hydroponics program has created 177 jobs.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Did you ever imagine that you'd one day be farming with hydroponics?

  • Hoda Ahmad Ismail:

    No. I never thought that I would work in hydroponics or anything like that.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Did you have any experience in farming in your life?

  • Hoda Ahmad Ismail:

    Yes we used to plant in our home in Syria, but that was the traditional farming, not hydroponics. We came here and there were people already working on the project. They trained us well so I didn't face any difficulty at all.

  • Chris Livesay:

    This twenty-first-century system of growing food represents WFP's push to use new technological approaches to providing food aid. More than 100,000 Syrian refugees live inside camps. The camps are so big in fact, that they have regular supermarkets… where people go to buy food with monthly stipends provided by WFP.

    People choose what they want and make their way through the crowds. But it's the checkout line that makes this supermarket unusual: the refugees use their eyes to pay, through iris scans. The scans are verified remotely by WFP, which keeps track of everyone's accounts.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    So they look into a little camera, which is an iris scan. The camera records their irises, verifies this is indeed the person that is allowed to do the shopping, and then the payment is done. It's the same technology that now for example is used at the airports, so it's not a new technology. It's however not that common yet to be used in supermarkets. It's futuristic, it is the future. We see it more and more.

  • Chris Livesay:

    It also makes it harder for people's aid money to get stolen, because they are the only ones that can access it. with their eyes.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    It is a safe and secure way to ensure that the people that have received the money are also the people that are buying the food.

  • Chris Livesay:

    Nearly 500,000 refugees are using this in Jordan. Degroot says there is no silver bullet for providing food aid to refugee populations — but using advances in technology is an important step toward ensuring everyone has access to food.

  • Jacqueline Degroot:

    In a place like this, where you can see there is absolutely nothing else, nothing grows here, people have nothing else but the aid that they are getting. It is very important for us to keep innovating. Innovations really help us being efficient, being relevant and making sure that we can provide the best aid that we possibly can.

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