First Published: 2010-01-05

Falaj – skilful Omani irrigation system

Oman’s unique falaj water supply and irrigation system seen as vital in most parts of country.


Middle East Online

By Dr. Hussein Shehadeh - MUSCAT

A falaj consists of a complex chain of structures

Democratic Distribution of Water

Despite all the technical advances of the modern era, no better solution has been found than this irrigation system, the origins of which go way back.

Oman’s unique water supply and irrigation system known as the falaj is vital in most parts of the country, and it is no exaggeration to call it a source of life. Despite all the technical advances of the modern era, no better solution has been found than this irrigation system, the origins of which are lost in the distant past.

A falaj consists of a complex chain of structures based on the laws of physics relating to water. The word falaj probably derives from an old Semitic word meaning distribution. This is a very telling description, as the water is distributed from where it occurs naturally, either alone or above the ground, to where it is needed in the villages or the fields.

Every town planner takes the falaj into consideration, and the system is always kept scrupulously clean. The system takes water from a spring, usually in the mountains, either from an underground source or where the water table is above the populated plane. Surface water is normally got from the natural or artificially created small reservoirs in dried-up river beds at the edge of the valley. The drinking water supply to the villages is separate and the lies above the irrigation installation.

Providing water supplies from the underground is not easy. It all begins with a water diviner finding water, frequently a long way away from where it is needed and at depths as much as 50 m or more. This is the main spring from which the tunnel must be led to the place where the water is to be tapped. Building such a tunnel is a difficult job, even for the professional. A shaft has to be dug every 20 or 30 metres, partly to remove the soil and partly to facilitate future maintenance. The project can take years to complete and stretch for as far as 10 km before it reaches the place where water is to be tapped or another conduit.

Constructing a falaj that runs in the open is not always easy, because a constant but slight fall is required. Such falajes are therefore most often seen on a mountain sides and must frequently cross viaducts and pools. Construction requires training and experience and can be much more demanding than excavating a tunnel. The main problem is to ensure a constant, even flow and to get past obstacles such as cutting water courses.

The channel must be painstakingly lined with cement that is impervious to water (sarqoj) to prevent erosion and a consequent loss of water.

It is generally recognised that the Awama tribe are masters in the art of falaj-building. They are small and sinewy and underground at intolerable temperatures, although they too, run out of oxygen after 20 minutes. Precision when it comes to the depth of the tunnel and achieving the correct slope this traditionally achieved by placing lighted candles in a straight line.

On the surface you can confirm the existence of a falaj tunnel from the row of piles of excavated earth in a straight line. The piles of earth remained close to the shaft to prevent possible flooding. The shafts must be maintained with a view to cleaning and other necessary maintenance of the tunnel.

At the edge of the village to be supplied, the water is distributed by means of open channels to the users. Distribution is done partly on the basis of the purity of the water and partly on the users requirements. The place where the water is distributed is often near a mosque. This place, where drinking water can be collected, is also marked. After this point sea channel should be closed off with a roof and walls to prevent pollution by drinking animals and laundry. The distribution point consists of a large system, which is necessary for two reasons: partly to achieve an adequate slope to the entire user area, partly to assure a steady flow to the users, also at times when input from without is limited. The usual pattern is that the system fills up during the night and empties in the course of the day; the radiation can, however, continue long after nightfall.

The right of ownership of the falaj is distributed across many shares, which give the right to a given quantity of water. People can sell or rent out their share. A share can also be on a time-share basis. In the old days one used to see sundials close to the distribution point but these days they use modern clocks.

The water is distributed according to priorities: for drinking and household use. Next comes personal hygiene - men and women have special washing areas, the one above the other. Then comes water for washing clothes and kitchen utensils. Finally comes garden irrigation - the date palms come first, followed by the lucerne and vegetables, with corn and root vegetables bringing up the rear.

To ensure that everything proceeds accordingly large villages usually employ a full-time falaj worker. This may be a manager (aref), a secretary, a person who keeps the water rights register up to date and an agent who takes care of repairs and maintenance.

All life in the villages ultimately depends on water rights, and disputes will inevitably arise. These can be complicated, e.g. when the rights of someone who dies have to be redistributed. In this case a judge (qadi) all the regional governor (wall) comes into the picture.

The origins of the falaj go way back. At one time researchers believed that similarities with the qanat-system used in Iran indicated that the falaj must have been introduced around the sixth century BC, when the powerful Acheminide Empire stretched from around to the Near East, Egypt and parts of the Mediterranean region.

However, new research has shown that water transport systems were found on the Arab peninsula many centuries before the Acheminide era. There is every indication that engineering knowledge regarding water coursing was present long before the invasion of aliens.

The oldest falaj in Oman is believed to be the Al Mulki, the main source of water for Izki, which is often determinable age. It consists of 360 canals emanating from a source 20 m below ground level. Only two of these channels are in use today, with the ancient brickwork maintained in an exemplary fashion.

Many other extremely old for latches are to be found throughout command some of them demonstrating remarkable technical skill or beauty. The viaducts are among Oman’s most significant historic monuments.

Controlling water, one of life’s fundamentals, has been the task of countless people in the area down the ages, people who have dedicated their long lives to a small part of a massive system, of which his descendants may have been the first to enjoy the benefits. All, however, have understood the significance of their job - without water at hand, no or at best extremely poor life.

During periods of drought the falaj rarely fails, although some springs might dry up for no obvious reason. Modern technology, however, would hardly be likely to do a better job. Life in Oman still depends on diligence and skill, the origins of which go way back.


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