No water, no life. No blue, no green. As an idea, we all know this pretty much, and thanks are due to marine biologist Sylvia Earle for articulating it so fluidly. In a way, the flow of water is a constant and gentle reminder of life, its flow from the cradle to the grave. The connection is too obvious to be acknowledged.
It also happens that we forget that connection altogether, not just in water-abundant regions but in extremely arid lands as well… as in the case of the Sultanate’s Falaj Malki in Izki in the governorate of Al Dakhiliyah. The falaj has been recognized by the Unesco as a World Heritage Site
For over a disturbingly long three decades, the once sprightly irrigation system of the area boasting a length of 10 km and numerous sub channels, and which nurtured life, culture and aspirations, has remained dry — forgotten and neglected, completely cut off from its source.
But nature has its own plans. A significant project launched in 2014 to restore, repair and maintain some 18 falaj systems in various governorates of the Sultanate opened the door to its redemption. The RO 284,000 aflaj project is an effort by the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources in association with Oman LNG towards reviving the land’s ancient and famed water distribution system.
The plan is to make Falaj Malki flow as it used to in the distant past, without using wells run by electricity, and is expected to give a strong boost to agriculture in the region.
The episode doesn’t end there: even as volunteers, including villagers, were working to bring Falaj Malki back to life, a researcher unearthed significant relics that underline the deep mutual connection between water humans. What he found was ancient tombs, one of them dating back 2300 years, scattered around the falaj. The falaj is also considered to be in existence since then.
See the connection: An ancient irrigation system built solely by the local villagers more than two thousand years back in complete harmony with nature, through which the elixir of life used to gush forth touching lives; and their tombs around the same water channel that sustained their lives! What a poignant aspect!
In fact, the purely indigenous aflaj (plural of falaj) systems are a strong cultural and heritage element of the Sultanate. It is significant that the Unesco has five of the Sultanate’s falaj systems on its list of World Heritage Sites including Falaj Malki.
The source of falaj water is groundwater present in the valleys or the subsoil, which is effortlessly extracted without any reliance on machines. The water thus extracted is used mainly for agriculture. Aflaj also addressed the day-to-day water needs of villagers.
Oman’s falaj systems differ in terms of various elements. Essentially there are three types of aflaj: Dawoodi, Ghaili and Ayni. The first refers to fairly long underground channels extending several kilometres with depths of up to ten metres and supplying water all through the year. Two of the major Dawoodi aflaj — Falaj Al Khatmayn and Falaj Daris in Al Dakhiliyah — are on the UN World Heritage list. Of these, Nizwa’s Falaj Daris is considered the most famous falaj in Oman.
Ghaili, on the other hand, are comparatively shallow with depths of up to 4 metres, and draw water from ponds or other sources of running water. Such aflaj don’t deliver water all through the year, as they rely on rainfall. They may even completely dry up at some point of time.
The water sources for the Ayni afalaj are springs (wells), including hot springs. These are unique, as the water they deliver could be hot or cold, potable, alkaline or saline. Their water could also be rich in minerals and can be used for water therapies. The most famous Ayni aflaj include Falaj Ayn Al Kasfah in Rustaq, Falaj Al Hamam in Bausher and Falaj Al Jaylah in Sur, which again is a UN World Heritage property. All are in Sharqiyah South.
Falaj al Muyassar in the wilayat of Rustaq is the fifth and only Unesco site on the northern slopes of Oman’s mountains.
The Sultanate’s rich aflaj systems could be developed into a major eco-tourism attraction. It is noteworthy that out of its 4,100 or so falaj systems, more than 3,000 are still in operation. They demonstrate the brilliant water management and engineering skills of its ancestors, and have greatly contributed to the sustainable and equitable use of its precious water resources.