Oman’s aflaj system is one of the world’s most well-preserved examples of ancient irrigation. Swati Basu Das explores its continued relevance in the Sultanate’s agricultural ambitions.
Here’s a free-flowing idea: if a drop of water could spell out its history it could surely explain the universe to us. A vital source for the existence of life, water’s soft burble narrates age-old human traditions and ways of life through channels that help nurture agricultural fecundity and growth.
The hundreds of fertile farms here in Oman that remain verdant year-round impressive illustrations of the impact a sustainable flow of water can have in the desert. The Sultanate’s traditional irrigation system – its aflaj system – is one of mankind’s most marvelously-engineered ancient archetypes. A gravitational wonder, it’s a system that can flow across great distances, stretching kilometres at a time, through concrete channels that bring succor and life to the. local eco-system.
Archaeological findings report 3,000 functional aflaj – some dating as far back as 2,500 BCE – across Oman, with five listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Channeling water from deep within the rock and earth, these aflaj irrigate elevated farmlands, helping them to remain lush and fertile, and remain deeply rooted in the nation’s cultural history and heritage.
“The aflaj water is sourced from underground springs, ‘qanats’, or wadis,” explains Yasser Al Maamari, a local farmer living in Rustaq who owns several date farms and orchards. “The water is pumped out naturally without any machines, through fissures and crevices in the mountain using the law of gravity. It’s then channeled through the village farms to irrigate the orchards and date plantations. It runs for several kilometres and the water is fit for drinking and other domestic uses. Since time immemorial we depend wholly on its viability.”
An integral aspect of Oman’s agricultural system, the Arabic word ‘falaj’ when roughly translated, means ‘to split and share in equal part’ – with ‘aflaj’ being the plural form of the word. The distribution of water to local farms through this system can be turned ‘on’ and ‘off’ at regular intervals by opening or closing a ‘sarja’ – a heap of rags or cloth weighted with stones that can block off the source. Each farm receives an equal amount of water each day – a precious resource that follows a strict schedule under the guidance of a ‘wakil’ or a local ‘judge’ of water consumption.
“He is in charge and manages the supply of water,” says Yasser. “He looks after the timings to open and close the flow of falaj water. He ensures even distribution to each farm, and he also tackles various issues related to the aflaj system in this area. It’s a long-standing traditional system which he follows – and everyone abides.”
A natural resource, water justifies its dominance over the arid land. Its soft murmurs flow through the narrow falaj channels, re-routed through the various farms as its flow brings bloom to the desert. Streaming ceaselessly year-round, the aflaj are a system that have shaped a nation through the cascading and bending of their currents – a blessing to farmers millennia ago, and which still make their rippling presence felt over the landscape of richness we enjoy even today.
The ‘umm al falaj’
The ‘umm al falaj’ is the ‘mother’ well and the primary source of the water. The water here contains the maximum minerals and is best suited for consumption and domestic use. This water gets channeled through the tunnel system into the fields.
The tunnel carries water from the mother well to the farms and can run for several kilometres depending on the altitude and the quantity of water available in the mother well.
These are covered rings which protect the falaj from external damage. Located every 20-metres along the falaj, these shafts ensure proper ventilation of the water flowing through the tunnel. They also remove impurities and debris carried by the water on its way.
Aflaj water extracted directly from the ground is divided into three major categories depending on the structure and the source of water:
These highly engineered tunnels are comparatively long and run for several kilometres. They’re usually ten metres deep, and the water flows all year-round. Falaj Al Khatmeen and Falaj Daris are classic examples of a Dawoodi falaj.
These four-metre-deep tunnels remain dry during the extended summer months and their source of water is flowing run-off water, ponds, or the occasional rainfall.
The water that flows through these aflaj is either hot or cold depending on the underground source. The water is drawn from hot springs or wells and can be saline, sweet, or alkaline, and is best suited for agricultural use. Some of these springs have a high mineral content and are well known for natural treatments and therapies. Falaj Ayn Al Kasfah in Rustaq, Falaj Hammam in Baushar, and Falaj Al Jeelah all fall into this category.
In 2006, UNESCO listed the following five aflaj as World Heritage Sites:
• Falaj Al Khatmeen
• Falaj Al Daris
• Falaj Al Malki
• Falaj Al Jeela
• Falaj Al Muyassar