01 Jun 2015: Report

Oasis at Risk: Oman’s Ancient
Water Channels Are Drying Up

Since pre-Islamic times, Oman’s water systems known as aflaj have brought water from the mountains and made the desert bloom. But now, unregulated pumping of groundwater is depleting aquifers and causing the long-reliable channels to run dry.

by fred pearce

It was 47 degrees Celsius. Make that 117 degrees Fahrenheit. In mid-May, the desert of northern Oman may have been the hottest place on the planet. But in the shade of the oasis, the temperature was dramatically cooler. Ali Al Muharbi, in his white robes and beard, beamed as he showed me around the date palms. All were irrigated by water gurgling down a channel dug many centuries ago to tap underground water in the nearby Hajar mountains.

In Oman, a country on the shores of the Arabian Sea, these magical waters conjured from the most arid land imaginable are called “unfailing springs.”

View Gallery

Fred Pearce
Ali Al Muharbi (right) says the flow in his water channels has been decreasing.
Even in the worst droughts, flows persist down the underground tunnels to the surface channels that course through the villages and fields. These pre-Islamic feats of hydraulic engineering remain the only water supply for many villages. Even large towns owe their existence to the perpetually flowing waters. The systems, which remain independent of the state and are run entirely by village communities, are known individually as falaj, and collectively by the plural aflaj.

“The aflaj may be the most ancient community-run systems for managing water in the world,” says Slim Zekri, a water economist at the Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and a devoted fan. Some tap natural springs; some capture water in gravel beneath the beds of wadis; but the largest and most “unfailing” are those that are connected to the tunnels that bring water down from the mountains. Similar to the ancient qanats of Iran and fogarra in North Africa, they have survived into the modern world better than either.

Until now.

Al Muharbi is the manager of the falaj that waters the village of Al Farfarah, about half an hour’s drive inland from Muscat, the Omani capital. Roughly 1.25 miles of underground tunnel deliver 3.4 gallons of cool mountain water every second to channels that irrigate 100 acres of date palms. Under the shade of the palms grow bananas, fruit trees, winter leafy vegetables, and forage crops for livestock.

But Al Muharbi says that flows in his falaj are declining. And in many villages, the unimaginable is happening: The unfailing springs are drying up.

A decade ago, UNESCO designated five of the best aflaj in Oman as world heritage sites. They have plaques, receive royal visits, and are on the tourist trail. But when I visited one of the famous five, falaj Al-Malki near the town of Izki, I discovered that only two of its 17 channels, which extend for
Private greed is wrecking a sustainable and collectively managed water system.
a total of 9 miles, are still in use. And their water is little more than a dribble.

Some blame climate change. But the droughts here are no worse than they have ever been. The real problem, in Izki and elsewhere, is that farmers are sinking private boreholes with pumps in upland areas where the aflaj tap the underground water. The boreholes lower the water tables until they are below the aflaj, leaving the tunnels high and dry. Aflaj, which flow entirely by gravity, are self-limiting: they tap the aquifers but cannot empty them. Pumped boreholes have no such limits — they keep sucking until all the water is gone. They are sabotaging the aflaj.

This is a tragedy of the hydrological commons. Private greed is wrecking a sustainable and collectively managed water system that archaeologists say has been delivering water in this area for 5,000 years. The oases are drying up. The date palms are crashing to the ground. Waterless villages are being abandoned.

I met people who told me privately they fear that the social disruption may trigger the spread of Islamist extremism from neighboring Yemen and Saudi Arabia. There is a history of rebellion in the Hajar mountains. Half a century ago, the British were bombarding rebel villages on behalf of the Sultan, in what turned out to be a dry run for the Americans in Iraq. The pity is that, when their supplies are not disrupted, the aflaj still work

View Gallery

Fred Pearce
In some areas, the dried-up channels of the aflaj are no longer in use.
remarkably well. Most that I saw were well maintained and had unclogged channels. Engineering features such as siphons, storage tanks, and raised aqueducts were in good working order. Management systems were also in place.

Al Muharbi’s falaj in Al Farfarah is typical. It has some 50 owners — descendants of the people who first put up the money or dug the falaj. For six days a week, the owners each have established rights to water coming down the channel. Timeshares range from half an hour to 15 hours, which is enough to irrigate 500 palm trees. The shares are bought and sold, as some families subdivide land and water for the next generation, while others buy out absent owners. In Al Farfarah, a permanent right to 30 minutes of falaj flow a week costs a bit over $3,000.

The water on the seventh day is open for purchase by those without an established share, or who want more water. Al Muharbi oversees regular auctions in front of the village mosque. Prices vary according to the time of day and the season, but average about $5 for 30 minutes of water — perhaps a tenth of the cost of the desalinated seawater now being brought to many villages for drinking. The auction fees pay for Al Muharbi’s work, running repairs, and charitable activities in the village, such as buying equipment for the school.

Zekri, the economist, thinks these simple water markets are the key to the long-term success of the aflaj. “The existence of private water rights that can be traded makes the system more efficient and allows the community to be self-reliant,” he told me. “They could offer important lessons for the world in how to manage scarce water reserves.”

Certainly, on the evidence of my visit, the complex management systems for sharing the water appears to be widely adhered to. The water entering the village is accessed first for drinking and domestic use, then for the mosque or school, followed by communal bathing cubicles and washing, though soap is banned. Water from these sources returns to the main channel, before heading for the fields along complex networks of channels.

I watched in Al Farfarah as farm workers meticulously kept to their schedule, blocking and unblocking irrigation channels using old rags held down by stones. One water owner berated her workers for not getting water to one palm tree. It could have been a scene from a thousand years ago. But things are changing in the villages.

Nowadays, the water distribution is timed with watches. But Al Muharbi, who is 65, was keen to show me the traditional method used when he was
Officials say a quarter of the aflaj have stopped flowing and a third have seen a sharp decline.
younger. He held a tall stick erect in the village square. As its shadow moved and reached marks in the square, orders would have gone out for which channel should receive water. At night, he remembered using the rising and setting of the stars as a clock. British researcher Harriet Nash found that as recently as a decade ago, eight villages still distributed water according to the stars. None do now.

There are other changes. With desalinated seawater now often supplied to villages for domestic use, day-to-day survival no longer depends on falaj waters. Some locals no longer know the rules. Traveling the villages, I saw signs in Arabic and English warning against bathing in delivery channels, and banning the washing of cars with falaj water.

With young Omanis moving to the cities for work, the old men left in charge employ contract workers from South Asia to work their farms. As we walked the channels of his falaj, Al Muharbi was silently followed by his Bangladeshi factotum, Mohammed Islam, who carried a small spade to remove silt. He told me he had been living in the village for five years now.



From the air, the green splashes of date palm plantations clearly mark where aflaj still water the land. A government inventory in the 1990s found just over 4,000 aflaj, of which 3,000 remained in use. They delivered about 916 million cubic yards of water and irrigated some 64,000 acres, up

View Gallery

Fred Pearce
Bathing in the channels of the aflaj system is prohibited by local villages.
to half of the country’s fields. In an effort to protect them, the government imposed a ban on sinking new wells within two miles of aflaj water-collecting zones. But existing wells are still emptying many aquifers.

Last year, ministers warned that a quarter of the aflaj had stopped flowing since the inventory, and a third had seen a sharp decline. They promised a program of restoration, bringing in engineering companies to clean out and line the water tunnels. But it is not clear how much difference that will make if the aquifers are emptying. And the initiative underlines how indigenous skills have disappeared.

Until the 1970s, a tribe called the Awamir specialized in repairing collapsed tunnels. But they gave up because there was no money in it. Now the government’s contractors send in unskilled foreign laborers to do the repairs. They are brave enough to crawl down dangerous collapsing tunnels. But they lack the traditional skills, says Abdullah Al-Ghafri of the University of Nizwa, who has been researching aflaj for 20 years.

The problem, he says, is that a falaj water tunnel is not simply a conveyor of water. It is also a receiving chamber for water percolating from the rocks above. Unskilled repairers often line the tunnels with concrete in places that receive water during wet times. That seals the tunnel off, killing what they came to cure.

Al-Ghafri wants to set up a research center to increase knowledge of the hydrology of aflaj and preserve the secrets of traditional management. “We need to interview the last Awamir tunnel diggers before they are gone,” he says. He also wants to conduct the first investigation of the conservation value of the aflaj. These systems are the only permanent sources of water in many
The oases of Oman may be green and cool, but they no longer make economic sense.
areas, yet their ecology is largely unknown. There could be an Omani equivalent of the blind white fish that famously inhabits Iranian qanats.

But the key to keeping the aflaj may be economic. The low price of dates, their main crop, means nobody makes money from traditional aflaj any more. The oases of Oman may be green and cool, but they no longer make economic sense. Most agree that they need higher value crops. Al-Ghafri plans an experimental farm at the UNESCO-listed falaj Al-Khatmein near his Nizwa campus. He wants to try out using falaj water for aquaculture, hydroponics, and growing vegetables in greenhouses.

Another need is to make more efficient use of falaj water. Zekri says much of it is wasted because it flows constantly to the fields, whether or not it is needed. Farmers routinely over-irrigate. The answer, he says, is to install gates where the tunnels exit the mountain, so flow can be stopped. He is also looking for a village that will try replacing traditional timeshares with smart meters to encourage water conservation.

“The aflaj have to be modernized or they will die,” Zekri says. “But they must remain in community hands. Government control would kill them.” He would like to see the land watered by each village falaj managed as a single farm. The owners would work as a cooperative, pooling their water rights and employing professional staff. But none of this will work, he says, unless the private wells emptying the aquifers are brought under control — perhaps by extending the existing community management of aflaj to include them. This is a radical agenda. Persuading the government will be hard. Persuading farmers and the elderly custodians of the aflaj like Al Muharbi will be harder still.

Back in his house, Al Muharbi and I sat cross-legged on the floor while Mohammed handed out the year’s first crop of dates and tiny cups of tea. I asked him what he thought the future held for his falaj. His smile for once slipped. “The younger generation aren’t interested,” he said. “It won’t be maintained. It could dry up one day. Perhaps soon.” It is a fatalism that could yet consign the unfailing springs to the history books.



POSTED ON 01 Jun 2015 IN Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Water Europe Middle East 

COMMENTS


It's the same old story all over the world. From Oman to California to India, unsustainable groundwater pumping is quite probably going to lead to collapse of governments, combinations, and even lead to wars. Unfortunately, technological advancements probably won't happen in time to prevent major global instability due to so-called "water wars."
Posted by Enviro-Equipment, Inc. on 01 Jun 2015


Thank you, Fred Pearce, for this excellent article. Yes, we need to increase awareness of the aflaj. Aflaj are not only a source of water, they are deeply connected with all life aspects of Omani oases. It is part of Oman culture and environment.


Posted by Abdullah Al-Ghafri on 01 Jun 2015


I am really interested to share my experience (I was Professor and I worked on the aflaj system. I agree that they need higher value crops. I can help Dr Al-Ghafri to conceive a project an experimental farm at the UNESCO-listed falaj Al-Khatmein near his Nizwa campus. I have new irrigation technology (the buried diffuser. www.chahtech.com)) which fit exactly with what Dr Al Gharfi wants to try out using falaj water for aquaculture, hydroponics, and growing vegetables in greenhouses. Like the falaj our buried technology works using the gravity. It delivers the water underground direct to the root zone (for vegetables or for trees). There is no loss of water by evaporation. This induces important water savings (50% less water than drip irrigation). To contact me this is my email: bchahbani@chahtech.com.
Posted by bellachheb chahbani on 02 Jun 2015


Very interesting article. I live in Milan and I visited the Oman
pavilion in Expo 2015 where it is possible to see this
irrigation method. I am a hydrobiologist and now I write
news and articles about water in a blog.
Cristina
Posted by Cristina arduini on 12 Jun 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers. Previously for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the challenges of establishing a global carbon budget and conservation efforts for Kenya's mountain forests.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.
READ MORE

What’s Killing Native Birds in
The Mountain Forests of Kauai?

Biologist Eben Paxton is sounding the alarm about the catastrophic collapse of native bird populations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. His group's research has uncovered the culprit: disease-carrying mosquitoes that have invaded the birds' mountain habitat.
READ MORE

Why We Need a Carbon Tax,
And Why It Won’t Be Enough

Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?
READ MORE

Clinton vs. Trump: A Sharp Divide
Over Energy and the Environment


READ MORE

Exploring How and Why
Trees ‘Talk’ to Each Other

Ecologist Suzanne Simard has shown how trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate their needs and aid neighboring plants. Now she’s warning that threats like clear-cutting and climate change could disrupt these critical networks.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.
READ MORE

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.
READ MORE

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.
READ MORE

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.
READ MORE

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.
READ MORE

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.
READ MORE

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?
READ MORE

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.
READ MORE

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.
READ MORE

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ugandan
Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale