Last year an exhibition showcasing Oman’s traditional irrigation method, called falaj system, which is still extant even today, was held at the Biosphere Center at Arizona University in the US, and witnessed many curious visitors admiring the system that supplies water to rural communities for their domestic and agricultural needs.
The falaj system is a symbol of the Omani ability to “build civilizations in the face of severe challenges.” In a speech to the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2005, Sultan Qaboos bin Said declared, “The falaj is a unique and important water source that has contribution greatly to the Omani society throughout its history. Not only is it regarded as one of the most historical sites in Oman, but it represents the ability of Omanis to build civilizations in the face of severe challenges and, at the same time, enrich the world’s heritage through their intellectual and creative endeavors.”
Subsequently, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee during its 30th meeting held in the Republic of Lithuania, formally took a decision to inscribe Oman’s five aflaj to the World Heritage List.
Aflaj (plural of falaj) traverse the countryside like arteries through the mountains and plains of Oman, snaking along precipitous cliffs and threading through villages and date-palm groves, supplying rural communities with their domestic and agricultural water requirements. It is amazing to see the ingenuity of ancient planners who devised such a system through Oman’s rugged topography.
An official at the information and awareness department of the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources says that water from aflaj irrigates about 33 percent of Oman’s farmed land.
In a large-scale survey conducted by the ministry, a total of 4,112 aflaj have been identified in Oman. Out of these, 3,017 were found active while 1,095 were categorized as dead. Muscat has the least number with 239, while Batinah is endowed with 1,561 aflaj. Sharqiyah comes next with 846, followed by Al Dakhiliyah with 750 and Al Dahirah with 716.
The aflaj constitute an elegant and relatively efficient system for tapping underground water in the wet mountain areas and delivering it to flat areas where agriculture is possible. Since water flows in the canals by gravity, no outside energy is needed for transport.
Linguistically, the word falaj means a fracture or fissure in the ground, a brook or an irrigation canal. In classical Arabic, falaj means to divide property into shares. Thus aflaj means a system for distributing water amongst shareholders and this is essentially what it does. Falaj has numerous other names, like qanat in Iran, kharis in Iraq, etc. Oman, lying between the arid and semi-arid zone, has no rivers and rainfall is not adequate for agriculture. Omanis accepted this challenge and applied their minds and skills to come out with a unique engineering system of aflaj, which look simple but is as sophisticated as the elevated Roman aqueducts that once crisscrossed Europe. The system of underground and surface canals that have watered the country’s agriculture for millennia has turned Oman into a fertile land.
The aflaj system was prevalent during ancient times as indicated in a quote from a pre-Islamic poet: “Oman as a goodly land, a land abounding in fields and groves, with pastures and unfailing springs.” Debate continues over the origin of this irrigation system, which is at least several thousand years old.
According to a legend, when Prophet Suleiman bin Dawood (peace be upon him) on his way to Jerusalem found that the Bedouin camping in Oman’s Salot Fort had no water ordered a jinn to build 1,000 canals on each day of his 10-day stay in the fort. Since then, Oman has 10,000 canals.
Though some archaeological investigations suggest an indigenous origin for the aflaj of Oman, there are others who believe that the history of aflaj may go back to the era of the Persian occupation of Oman. This theory postulates that the Persians carried qanat technology with them to the lands they colonized in Achaemenid times during the sixth century BC. Indeed, one measure of a Persian leader at the time was the number of qanats he had built in the lands he ruled.
The origin of the falaj, therefore, remains open to further debate.
Types of aflaj
Different types of falaj were built to suit the water sources available. Aflaj are divided into three types:
1. Iddi or Daudi Aflaj: Attributed to Prophet Suleiman bin Dawood, are characterized by their length, which may be as long as 12km, and their perennial flow, which is continuous throughout the year and can be found on upstream plains of Sharqiyah, Dakhiliyah, Dahirah and the Batinah regions.
Al Malki falaj in Izki is the largest falaj in Oman in terms of its number of branches, with a total of 17. It should be noted that Daudi aflaj account for 23.5 percent of the total number of Oman’s aflaj.
2. Ghaili Aflaj: They are so called because their flow is seasonal and determined by the availability of groundwater and rainfall. They mainly draw their water from wadi channels and lower mountain slopes. Most of these aflaj stop flowing during dry periods as a result of their dependence on water that accumulates in pools downstream of wadis. These are the most prevalent type of aflaj in northern Oman and constitute about 48.5 percent of the total number in the Sultanate.
3. Aini Aflaj: These aflaj are fed by springs flowing from the foothills and peaks of mountains where water runs in open channels from deep geological layers formed in ancient times. The water usually contains sulphur and is sometimes hot, and is used to cure diseases such as rheumatism. There are many hot springs in the Sultanate; the most widely known are Ain Al Thawarah in Nakhal, Ain Al Kasfah in Al Rustaq and Ain Arzat in Jebal Al Qara in Dhofar. Aini aflaj constitute about 28 percent of the total number of aflaj in the Sultanate.
Construction and distribution of aflaj
Exploration is the first step in finding water, and in Oman a special guild of ‘water diviners’ have achieved fame for their ability to find hidden sources of water. They use experience, observation and a certain amount of instinct. They study the soil, the slope of the land and, in particular, look for the presence, or absence, of certain types of plants, carefully noting the slant of their branches. They then sink a trial shaft. If they hit water and think the flow likely to be constant, they organize the construction of a falaj.
Next is excavation, followed by location of the mother well usually determined by the ‘basir’ or an expert. The mother well is excavated after a suitable aquifer has been identified by the expert. Then four or five test wells are dug at varying distances according to the availability of the underground water.
When sufficient stocks of water are reached, the dug wells are connected with each other through an underground tunnel locally called a’sull. Then wells of a lesser depth are dug along a straight line. The digging of the wells continues with gradual reduction of the well depths until the water flows on the surface at the shari’a (the point at which water first appears on the surface of the earth), after which a number of internal canals are constructed to convey the water to farms within the catchment area. Since the force that moves the water through the channel is gravity, the floor of the channel must slope downward – but not too sharply.
The aflaj water distribution system is rather complicated and is based on complicated calculations involving the positions of stars and the times of sunset and sunrise. There are several methods for distributing the water between shareholders. The falaj agent (wakeel) takes care of the water distribution depending on requirements, while taking the nature of the soil into consideration. The government has taken various measures to protect and maintain the aflaj in terms of construction and conservation of water.
One of the great contributions of the Arabs to Spain, aflaj made agriculture and urban life possible in areas that would otherwise have remained arid. It is said that the word ‘Madrid’ is derived from a Spanish-Arabic word meaning ‘falaj’ — by means of which the capital of the Spanish Empire derived its water.
As part of traditional greetings, an Omani will invariably ask about the condition of the aflaj, which evokes the reply, ‘Insha’allah, they are full’.