MAKKAH: It was in the year 1983 when the residents of the village of Tabah, east of Hail, discovered they had been living on a volcano crater for centuries.
The village, nestled in the Salma Mountains in northern Saudi Arabia, presented a perfect picture of peace and harmony. Villagers reported feeling tremors and seeing cracks in the ground here and there, but no one really thought much of it.
The situation worsened in the 1980s, when a development project began in the area and an asphalt company began paving roads, a process for which the village’s underground water had to be extracted.
The changes to the water table led to a series of loud sounds and land subsidence that destroyed several homes. It was then that the government decided to move the villagers to safety and compensate them by providing them with homes outside the volcanic zone.
Khalaf Naif Al-Hasher, 70, who was born in the old village of Tabah, told Arab News that it was an important and well-known part of northern Saudi Arabia and that its residents were known for their kindness and compassion.
“I remember very well the days when my relatives and I moved from Tabah after it began experiencing geological phenomena, such as tears, fissures and land subsidence,” he said.
“Although we did feel some tremors and saw slight cracks here and there, no one cared, and the village’s residents were not bothered by them.”
He said that moving to what he referred to as “the new Tabah” was urgent after several homes were damaged in the village, which had a population of 1,500 people at the time.
The village was not affected in the past by any imbalances in water consumption. It was only after people started using water-pumping equipment in agriculture that an imbalance was created, causing the soil to subside in order to occupy the void, and this led to tremors.
Mubarak Al-Salamah Geologist
“The asphalt company used to consume large quantities of underground water, for which Tabah was famous, and the residents used to sell water to the company.”
Al-Hasher said that he and others who were present in those days still remember the terrifying sound that emanated from the ground.
“Everyone felt the strength and intensity of the tremors, which led to land subsidence,” he said. “Those houses with cracks still exist.”
Al-Hasher said that the Saudi government intervened in a timely manner, and its agencies acted quickly and inspected 250 damaged homes. The government then decided to move all residents to another residential area about 3 kilometers from the old Tabah and outside the volcanic zone.
Hamad Al-Mawkaa, a 57-year-old man who lived in Tabah, told Arab News that the village began to see large cracks more than three decades ago. He said the situation worsened when the underground water, which villagers had previously only consumed in small quantities for drinking and irrigation, was depleted due to the project.
“In a few days, all the groundwater reserves were emptied, and the village was unable to compensate for the lost water due to the scarcity of rain. This caused an imbalance in the earth’s crust, which led to a series of cracks and fissures that spread throughout the village,” Al-Mawkaa recalled.
Geologist Mubarak Al-Salamah, an expert in desert and environmental tourism, told Arab News that the village of Tabah became attractive for tourists from inside and outside the Kingdom.
“At the time (1983), the government sent a team from the Ministry of Interior, Agriculture and Water, the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, and the Ministry of Municipalities and Rural Affairs. I was a member of that team, which made recommendations after inspecting the cracks, joints, and fissures. This prompted the government to move the residents outside the crater and provide them with new homes,” he said.
Land subsidence, accompanied by fissures and cracks, led to the development of fractures that ran for long distances along the crater, Al-Salamah explained, which has a diameter of about 2 kilometers at some points. “With this, the conical shape of the volcano transformed into a funnel shape, and as the drainage system was confined, rainwater collected inside the crater and formed a reservoir of groundwater.”
Explaining the conditions leading to the village’s evacuation, Al-Salamah said: “The village was not affected in the past by any imbalances in water consumption. It was only after people started using water pumping equipment in agriculture that an imbalance was created, causing the soil to subside in order to occupy the void, and this led to tremors.”
According to the geologist, it is possible to notice swept-away cliffs and stratigraphic columns in Tabah, which indicate the occurrence of several successive volcanic eruptions.
Al-Salamah said that Tabah’s people, as well as others in the region with the exception of specialists, were not aware of this fact until parts of its land caved in.
“Tabah and its environs were an area of volcanic activity. The village of Al-Na’i is also on top of the Hatimah volcano, and the environs of the village of Abdah are extinct volcanic craters. These areas must be invested in to serve as tourist attractions that benefit the entire region,” said Al-Salamah.
He added: “If tourist facilities are made available, such as lodges built from raw materials available in the region like mud and basalt, the area would become one of the most important tourist attractions in Hail.
“We must consider the importance of nature tourism in the neighboring Salma Mountains, which are suitable for hiking, mountain climbing, and paragliding. Even more beautiful is the Islamic and historical tourism in the city of Faid and Darb Zubaida (Zubaida’s Road). Zubaida, the wife of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, has been immortalized through the water pools that show the ingenuity of Arabs in water harvesting and engineering.”