Where does Oman get its water from?

Water for the desert

Friday, May 21, 2021

World time / archive | Article from February 21, 2011

The irrigation system in the Sultanate of Oman

By Margarethe Bl├╝mel

Brick canals, so-called "Aflaj", transport the water to the surrounding fields in the Dakhilya region. (picture alliance / dpa)

Aflaj is the name of a millennia-old, traditional system of canals in the Near and Middle East, which ran through miles of dry land and brought water. Today they lie fallow in many places, are silted up and poorly maintained. This is different in the Sultanate of Oman, where the canal system was maintained and further developed. A specially trained authority there deals with its renovation and maintenance. To this day, the canals supply large parts of the population with fresh water, which is distributed to village communities and families according to established rules.

The meeting place of the oasis Birkat al Mauz is orphaned under the scorching midday sun. No sound can be heard - except for the constant rushing of the water, which flows through a network of many, small canals between the houses, huts and the fields.

The residents of the small town have withdrawn into the coolness of their houses, narrow-chested adobe buildings, the front of which disappears under shady, dusty-green palm fronds. Only the respectable person of the village, the elementary school teacher Ali Said, came to fill a jug with drinking water.

Thanks to his Dishdasha, the men's loose-fitting, floor-length garments, he hardly seems to feel the heat:

"In Arabic we call this a falak. The source rises in the mountains and usually runs underground for a few kilometers. People come to this place to clean themselves before visiting the mosque, sometimes just to be with each other The children use the falak to swim in it. And in the morning, around seven o'clock, you can see the women who fetch the drinking water here and do their laundry downstairs. "

Falak is the name of one of these artfully constructed canals. It is estimated that the Persians ran the irrigation system as early as the sixth century BC. In Oman. The social component of a Falak is already clear from the translation of the term, which includes sharing or distributing. Local families have always had traditional claims that water should be directed to their homes and gardens and fields for a specified period of time.

The duration of the daily watering depends on the size of the respective area. Weirs are opened and closed again according to a rotation system. This ensures that the water always comes to other fields. The so-called Waquil monitors that the allocation is done with the right things. As the head of the community falak, he is one of the most important personalities in the community.

To this day, the people of Oman get more than a third of their water from the Aflaj, as the irrigation canals are called in the plural. There are not only traditional reasons for this - the water that gushes out of the Aflaj, according to the head of Oman's water authority, Sulaiman al Amri, is known to be pure and particularly tasty:

"We regularly carry out water analyzes. Each time, more than five hundred Aflaj are examined. So far, always with the same result: The water is fresh and of really good quality. It is not for nothing that we do not approve any construction projects close to the source. Every further project, even that should be settled near a falak is put through its paces. "

Al-Mudaybi is also a pleasant place to work for the engineers. A solid wall made of mud bricks hugs the place, which consists of many houses built closely together and the remains of an old craft district. Near the tarred road that leads to Al-Mudaybi, the falak captures the eye. The manholes of the canal system are lined up for kilometers and in a straight line - an impressive example of the work that the designers of the watercourse have achieved.

Difficulties with regard to the distribution of the water are not to be feared. In every village, in every community that operates a falak, all beneficiaries must be able to irrigate their fields and meet their drinking water needs. The ownership share is inherited. If a family moves in, they purchase a corresponding water quota for a nominal amount. But not only who receives how much water, when, has been clarified from the outset. The allocation cycle is also regulated down to the smallest detail.

Sulaiman al Amri: "The distribution of the water follows clear guidelines. The hierarchy is clear: The water that emerges at the beginning of the canal is intended for drinking. Then it flows past the mosque and the believers perform their ritual ablutions with it. Then it comes General personal hygiene benefits. And at the very end it is directed to the fields. "

Whenever and wherever possible, the canals are constructed in such a way that they lead past the local mosque.

In every village, in every locality of Oman that has a falak, the believers perform ritual ablutions before visiting their mosque. Men and women in separate washing areas, where they clean their hands up to the wrists, clean their faces and run their damp hands through their hair.

Omanis are Muslims and in Islam, water is considered blessed. The appreciation of the element is expressed in buildings, gardens and in religious poetry. Water symbolizes the divine omnipotence and the mercy of Allah.

Oman is a very dry country with little rainfall. The Aflaj, who feed themselves from groundwater, form the backbone of the Sultanate's agriculture. The engineer Ali Bin Khaliq:

"We have three different types of Aflaj. On the one hand, the canals get their water from the rain in the valleys. If, however, as so often, it does not rain at all or only sparingly, these Aflaj will of course soon dry up. Then we have Aflaj, The third type makes use of the groundwater that comes to the surface in the form of springs. This can also be a thermal spring. In this case, hot water gushes out of the falak! Sometimes such sources feed an entire network that can stretch over many kilometers. "

The craft is almost always carried out in teamwork. Four to six men work hand in hand while chiseling and transporting the excavation from the tunnels. If one of the channels threatens to dry out, it is driven in the direction in which the men suspect further water reserves with a hammer and chisel alone.

Ahmed Bin Mohd al Ghafri from the Ministry of Water Resources emphasizes that the whole thing is traditionally carried out by Oman's water experts, the Awamir:

"You have made a name for yourself by taking care of the preservation of the Aflaj. The Al Awamir are members of a tribe that has very special knowledge in this regard."

Most Omanis have gotten used to the presence of showers and baths. In addition, the government has planted green spaces in the larger towns and cities, which must be watered accordingly. The capital of the Sultanate of Muscat is a major consumer, if not a wasteful, of water. Around a million people live in its vicinity. In addition, there is an increasing number of tourists who do not want to do without anything for the duration of their stay.

The drinking water of the residents of the capital comes mainly from seawater desalination plants. But to meet the needs of the thirsty capital, the desalination plants are too expensive in the long run. In addition, they are energy-intensive with oil and natural gas and pollute the environment. The large wastewater system should be ready by 2017, which will press huge amounts of the precious resource through a new type of filter in order to ultimately recover purified water. Cost point: the equivalent of more than seven hundred and fifty million euros.

A man like Saif Bin Sulaiman al Amri appreciates the government's multifaceted efforts. The head of the Aflaj authority lives and works in Muscat. He loves the comforts of his life. The staff, who at a wink bring tea, juices, fresh fruit and dates, the air conditioning and the shower next door.

It is the mixture of old and new that al Amri really likes. Oman, he says, is something of a model state for the Arab world:

"There are over four thousand canals across the country, around three thousand of which are in continuous operation. Five of these Aflaj are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List."

The UNESCO award was justified by the fact that the canals represent an exceptionally well-preserved form of land use and take particular account of the social needs of the people. But even in a just social system like this, which treats everyone equally, there are beneficiaries. Where the groundwater that flows into the canals is particularly abundant, it can be acquired at auction and, if desired, be resold at a profit.

When hordes of sheep, cattle, donkeys and camels invade Nizwa on Friday early in the morning, their owners, draped with curved daggers and rifles, are usually not far away. The tribal people have arrived in the oasis city in inner Oman with their pick-ups and trucks. They quickly and skillfully tie their cattle to the post provided, put ankle shackles on their camels and hold a drinks vendor by the sleeve of his robe in order to receive their first cup of tea.

The Nizwa animal market is a popular meeting place. The town is also very popular as a location because it has the largest freshwater reservoir in Oman. Here, not only is haggling over the price of a breeding sheep or a particularly potent camel stallion, water shares are also traded. Animal owners know that their thirsty sheep or cattle are well looked after in and around Nizwa. Those of them who have a larger water quota are highly regarded. They were smart enough to have bought it at some point and wait a long time for the price to skyrocket. In order to then sell it profitably.

Or they are clever enough to water their own flock with it. And sell the animals right there.

Prestige, awareness of tradition, pride, pragmatism: through persistent commitment and the targeted cultivation of the Aflaj, the Omanis have preserved the millennia-old sewer network right into the here and now. Saif Bin Sulaiman al Amri emphasizes that this is an achievement that can ultimately only be achieved because Sultan Qaboos provides a generous budget for the maintenance of the canals year after year.

But there is one downer.

Sulaiman al Amri: "The Awamir are not famous for their skills for nothing. Unfortunately, hardly anyone grows from their ranks anymore. Because the young Awamir simply no longer want to do this difficult work.

The young people are looking for a lucrative income. Those who work in the private sector or in the government are of course better off. The salary is right. And the work is usually limited. Maintaining the Aflaj, however, saps your strength. In summer the thermometer here rises to over fifty degrees. Then repairing leaks inside the Aflaj, digging and excavating new channels - that's asking a lot! The young people are not particularly enthusiastic about it.

We are now trying to arouse the interest of young people via the Internet and through projects in schools. One of our most important tasks is to help them understand this part of their heritage. And so to pass the whole thing on to the next generation. "

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