The aflaj, Oman’s water lifelines
Muscat - They are like the veins keeping the body alive. For thousands of years, Oman’s ingenious ancient water irrigation system known as aflaj has kept the arid country’s fields and date palm groves green. The traditional system of narrow, mud-walled underground and surface canals, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in northern parts of Oman and constitutes the backbone of agriculture.
Omanis have survived through the ages by managing and sharing water in fair and effective ways through use of the aflaj, the only irrigation resources that existed in Oman before the introduction of pumps in the second half of the last century.
The aflaj may date to 500AD but archaeological evidence suggests that irrigation systems existed in the extremely arid area as early as 2500BC. Using gravity, water is channelled from underground sources or springs to support agriculture and for domestic use. The management and sharing of water in villages and towns are underpinned by mutual dependence and communal values and guided by astronomical observations.
Managing and distributing water in ancient times was specific to every village that had a wakil, the person in charge of equitably distributing water.
“In the old days we had no watches so during the day we were using the sundial to divide the time of irrigation for each family and during the night it was the position of some specific stars with the peaks of the mountains surrounding the village,” said Hmeid al-Hattali, the wakil of Al Hijir, a village in Wadi Bani Kharus in Al Batinah governorate.
“For example when the star Al Thanab touches the peak of Al Ruus, we open the water for Mohamed bin Salim and we stop it when Al Thanab reaches Al Aaqbah and direct it to another family and so on,” he added.
Hattali’s father was the wakil of the village before him. “He taught me everything — the names of all the stars we observe and the way to make the calculation of the time of use of the water of the falaj for each house in the village. All of this is registered in my head, nothing is written.”
Hattali said he fears the old knowledge will disappear with him when his son Yusuf takes over. “He will not need this science anymore because he will be relying on his smart phone,” Hattali said.
More than 3,095 aflaj are believed to exist in Oman, according to a 1997 survey, of which many are in use. Every now and then, the villagers do maintenance of the falaj, clearing the channel of leaves and other litter.
There are three main types of aflaj in Oman, said Abdullah al- Ghaffri, director of Aflaj Research Unit and assistant professor at Nizwa University.
“The Dawoodi falaj is a long channel dug underground that runs for several kilometres with a depth reaching usually tens of metres and the water is present in this kind of channel all year round,” Ghaffri said.
“Al Awabi falaj runs more than 10 kilometres under the wadi bed at a depth of more than 20 metres in some sections. Whereas, the Ghaili falaj receives water from ponds or running water and their depths do not exceed 3 to 4 metres. Water quantities increase in these aflaj directly after rainfall and usually dry up quickly during extended dry periods.”
The importance of the falaj depends on water quality, which varies between hot and cold and between fresh drinking water, saline water and between alkaline water mixed with valley water, considered suitable for agriculture, Ghaffri said.
He said there is also the Ayni falaj, which draws water directly from the springs. One kind of spring water contains varying proportions of mineral salts and is suitable for medical treatment.
The aflaj represent a major water resource for meeting water needs in Oman. They play a large role in the economy of Oman’s rural areas. As such, experts and officials are engaged in a broad effort to preserve the institution, along with the way of life it has made possible.
The geographic distribution of water resources and aflaj help explain the pattern of scattered small habitations in the country’s heartland. A falaj can support only a limited number of people and the cooperation it demands for maintenance and operation has helped to organise life in the isolated, tightly knit communities of Oman’s interior.