The Wonders of Water: The Aflaj of the Sultanate of Oman

The Wonders of Water: The Aflaj of the Sultanate of Oman

05/01/2021 by Jonathan Bentham

The Sultanate of Oman lies at the south-eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. Roughly half of its borders are made up of coastline, yet it frequently ranks as one of the driest and most arid countries on Earth. In 2014, the Sultanate of Oman ranked 12th amongst the driest countries in the world by annual rainfall.[1]

For centuries, the people of Oman have looked to the ‘Aflaj’ to fulfil their requirement for the distribution of water.

While in recent decades Oman has looked to oil for its prosperity, its domestic lifeline is, and has always been its water. Oman only became an international exporter of oil in the mid to late 1960s. Prior to that, its economy was based almost exclusively on agriculture and fisheries, focussing largely on subsistence, rather than exports.[2] Accordingly, water has arguably always been Oman’s most precious resource, with its distribution across the land being of paramount importance for irrigation and community use.

For centuries, the people of Oman have looked to the ‘Aflaj’ (singular: ‘falaj’) to fulfil their requirement for the distribution of water. A falaj is a small canal, or aqueduct, that uses gravity to transport water from a source, usually in the mountains, to a village, town or agricultural area. It is estimated that there are over 3000 active Aflaj in Oman today,[3] providing water to a number of communities in the Sultanate.

Despite Oman’s dry conditions, the Aflaj have allowed the Omani people access to water for centuries. Consequently, the Aflaj are, in many ways, a wonder of the Middle East and a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of its people. They also stand as a symbol of the enduring cooperation and communal values held by the rural populations of Oman. This article seeks to give a brief insight into the Aflaj and demonstrate the ongoing value of their collective heritage to the people of Oman.

Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart
Copyright: © Editions Gelbart

The Falaj

As previously stated, a falaj is an aqueduct that transports water using gravity for irrigation purposes. In 2008, the Ministry of Regional Municipalities & Water Resources for the Sultanate of Oman stated that water from Aflaj accounted for 30% of all agricultural water use, with the other 70% coming from ground wells.[4] As such, despite being historical constructions, the Aflaj remain a cornerstone of rural Omani life and livelihood today.

Interestingly, there is more than one ‘type’ of falaj. While the overall concept of a falaj is a simple one, in that it transports water from a source to a point of need, certain Aflaj differ in where they draw their water from, as well as the depth of their canals. Below is a brief list of different types of Aflaj, along with their distinguishing factors [5] :

Aini: An aini falaj is perhaps the most simple and straightforward type of falaj. It draws its water from a natural spring, and simply transports this water to a community via a canal.

Source: Al-Ghafri, Abdullah,“Study on Water Distribution Management of Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman,” DAg diss. Hokkaido University, 2004

Ghaili: A ghaili falaj draws its water from ponds or running water. As such, the water flow in a ghaili falaj fluctuates according to the amount of rainfall. Therefore, following extended dry periods, a ghaili falaj may experience a water shortage. Equally, following rainfall, the water quantities in a ghaili falaj may temporarily surge.

Source: Al-Ghafri, Abdullah,“Study on Water Distribution Management of Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman,” DAg diss. Hokkaido University, 2004.

Dawoodi: A Dawoodi falaj’s source comes from a mother well. The transportation channels are dug underground, and usually run for several kilometres. The depth of these Aflaj tend to extend into the tens of metres, thus securing year-round flowing of water.

Source: Al-Ghafri, Abdullah,“Study on Water Distribution Management of Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman,” DAg diss. Hokkaido University, 2004.

History

Pinpointing the exact period in which Aflaj emerged in Oman is not entirely straightforward. The general consensus is that the Aflaj irrigation system is pre-Islamic, dating back to at least 500AD.[6] However, archaeological evidence suggests that these water networks may have existed anywhere between 500 and 1000 years earlier than this.[7]

The concept of the Aflaj is attributed to being of Persian origin, where these aqueducts went by the name of qanat or karez.[8] It is theorised that the qanat were the forebears of the Omani Aflaj, brought to Oman during the Persian occupation in the Achaemenid era.[9] However, there are a number of other scholarly opinions as to the origins of such aqueducts. Some scholars suggest that such places as Armenia or Kurdistan could have been the birthplaces of the Aflaj’s predecessors. Regardless of where they originated, it is clear that the Aflaj and equivalent water networks proliferated all over the ancient world, including in places such as China, Iraq, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Afghanistan, to name a few.[10]

Given the age of the Aflaj, there are also popular myths about their creation. The most well-known in Oman relates to a story of King Suleiman bin Dawood (King Solomon), who reportedly visited Oman while travelling to Yemen. On his journey, he became thirsty, and was exasperated by the lack of water in the area. Because of this, it is said he ordered the jinn, a mythological Arabian demon, to dig 1000 Aflaj every day.[11] Given the protagonistic role of King Suleiman in this story, it would also point to why one type of falaj is called the ‘dawudi’ falaj, after King Dawood (David), the father of Suleiman.

The remarkableness of a falaj lies not just in its ability to transport water over long distances, but also in its ability to distribute it equitably amongst various shareholders

Development of Aflaj

The development of Aflaj within the Sultanate of Oman, as with water systems in many countries, was born out of necessity, given Oman’s annual rainfall is not sufficient to sustain agriculture.[12] Some farms have access to their own wells, which before the 1950s (and the advent of diesel pumps) were operated by animals such as donkeys or bulls.[13] However, this method of water extraction took time, and required someone to watch over the animals. Conversely, the Aflaj allowed water to be moved by gravity down from the mountains over vast distances to the wadis (valleys) and agricultural zones.[14] With the exception of periodical maintenance and the overseeing of communal distribution, this method was not manpower intensive, and required little supervision once the Aflaj were in place. This suggests why the Aflaj proliferated into the thousands over hundreds of years, and why they are still present and relevant today in modern Oman.

Author: Ko Hon Chiu Vincent
Copyright: © Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

The matter of communal distribution is a key point in the development of the Aflaj. The remarkableness of a falaj lies not just in its ability to transport water over long distances, but also in its ability to distribute it equitably amongst various shareholders, for different purposes, ranging from domestic use to agricultural irrigation.

The dependence of many on such networks has also caused a number of social norms and legal rules to emerge over the years in terms of the governance of the Aflaj. For instance, in any given community there are allocated access points along a falaj for such activities as drinking, religious washing, and domestic washing, so as not to contaminate the water for others who may use it.[15] As the diagrams above show, Aflaj will first deliver water to a village or town, before it reaches the agricultural point of need, so as to ensure communities obtain the purest water possible.

The importance of the Aflaj to communities in Oman is reflected in law. While one must hold water rights to use the Aflaj for irrigation purposes, all communities hold common water rights, which allow them to use the water from Aflaj for domestic purposes freely. Moreover, the right to use water from a falaj extends beyond the members of its immediate community. Animals, or humans in need of water for individual use, or for basic sustenance cannot be refused access to the Aflaj.[16] While only remaining as elements of protected heritage today, defensive structures, such as watchtowers, were originally built to protect and watch over the Aflaj, such was their importance to communities.[17]

Typically for a large falaj, there is a communal administration, which would oversee the smooth running and distribution of water. It consists of a director, two assistants, a treasurer, and a labourer. The director is usually someone of good social standing, and well respected within the community.  The director is responsible for water distribution, water rent, and solving disputes between farmers or other users who have disagreements over water shares. The director also instructs the assistants, who in turn direct the labourer.[18]

Naturally sustainable, but in danger

The marvel of the Aflaj is evident. Despite being hundreds of years old, the Aflaj still to this day deliver water equitably, at distance and without the use of machinery to many communities within the Sultanate. However, the survival of the Aflaj into the twenty-first century risks making them a victim of their own success. While many traditional communities remain dependent on the Aflaj for the provision of water and for irrigation, Oman’s oil wealth and consequent urban development has led to an exodus of people in some rural areas.[19] As such, a number of systems are in danger of falling into disrepair, through lack of local maintenance and care. Equally, many are at risk of falling into disuse by shrinking communities. Acknowledging this, certain institutions, such as the University of Nizwa are involved in projects to highlight the importance of the Aflaj to Oman’s communities and way of life. More can be read on these projects below.

The Aflaj show that even the scarcest of resources can be distributed equitably when the need arises, and remind us that communal values such as sharing and supporting one another can lead to collective prosperity

Current Projects on the falaj

In order to protect the Aflaj, a number of projects are currently underway within the Sultanate of Oman. The University of Nizwa has initiated the ‘Aflaj Research Unit’, which seeks to “document the multi-faceted contribution of the Aflaj to traditional knowledge, culture and heritage, biodiversity, and the economy of Oman.”[20] In doing this, it hopes to also develop plans to sustain the Aflaj into the future.

The Omani government, through the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources, has initiated protection zones and offered support for vulnerable Aflaj water sources, such as mother wells. As an example, by 2005 the Ministry had constructed over 900 support wells and by 2006 had supported just under 700 Aflaj maintenance projects, spending approximately $US 15 million in the process.[21]

In 2006, five Omani Aflaj networks, comprising almost 3000 systems were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, officially recognising both the cultural and practical significance of the Aflaj systems to Oman.[22]

These are just some of the examples that illustrate the importance of the Aflaj to both the national and international community.


Water is essential for survival. In the Middle East, a region that is increasingly known for its production of oil, the Aflaj of Oman remind us that while oil may bring temporary prosperity, it is water that sustains life and fosters cooperation. The Aflaj are a marvel of engineering, yet their survival and existence today as structures of heritage symbolises more than just ingenuity and resourcefulness. The Aflaj show that even the scarcest of resources can be distributed equitably when the need arises, and remind us that communal values such as sharing and supporting one another can lead to collective prosperity. In a region that is depicted today in terms of political instability and sectarian division, the Aflaj stand as a humble reminder and testament to the Middle East’s record of unity, cooperation, and ingenuity.


[1] Index Mundi. Average precipitation in depth (mm per year) – Country Ranking. Accessed November 7, 2020. https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/AG.LND.PRCP.MM/rankings.

[2]Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim,Traditional Irrigated Agriculture in Oman: Operation and Management of the Aflaj System, Water International, 26 (2) 2001: p. 259.

[3] University of Nizwa

[4] http://www.omanws.org.om/images/publications/5465_Water_Atlas_E.pdf

[5] The following information is taken from: Sultanate of Oman. Ministry of Tourism. Falaj Irrigation System. Accessed November 30, 2020.

[6] Sutton, Sally, “The falaj–a traditional co-operative system of water management,” Waterlines 2(3) 1984, p. 8.

[7] Med-O-Med, Cultural Landscapes, Aflaj Irrigation System, Oman, accessed December 6, 2020. https://medomed.org/featured_item/the-cultural-landscape-of-aflaj-irrigation-system-oman/.

[8] Cressey, George, “Qanats, Karez, and Foggaras,” Geographical Review, 48 (1) 1958: p. 27.

[9] Al-Ghafri, Abdullah, “Overview about the Aflaj of Oman,” (Proceeding of the International Symposium of Khattaras and Aflaj, Erachidiya, Morocco, October 9, 2018), p. 4.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Also, see Medo-O-Med

[12] University of Nizwa

[13] Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim, “The falaj irrigation system and water allocation markets in Northern Oman,” Agricultural Water Management, p. 72.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Sutton, p. 11.

[16] Zekri, Slim & Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim, “A millenarian water rights system and water markets in Oman,” Water International, 33 (3) 2008: p. 353.

[17] Al-Sulaimani, Zaher bin Khalid; Helmi, Tariq & Nash, Harriet. “The Social Importance and Continuity of Falaj Use in Northern Oman.” International History Seminar on Irrigation and Drainage, Tehran, Iran. May 2-5, 2007, p. 1.

[18] Al-Ghafri, p. 2.

[19] University of Nizwa

[20] Ibid.

[21] Al-Sulaimani, Zaher bin Khalid; Helmi, Tariq & Nash, Harriet, p. 16.

[22] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage Centre. Ancient irrigation system (Oman) and Palaces of Genoa (Italy) among ten new sites on World Heritage List. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/267/.


To go further

Al-Ghafri, Abdullah. “Study on Water Distribution Management of Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman.” DAg diss. Hokkaido University, 2004.

Al-Ghafri, Abdullah. “Overview about the Aflaj of Oman.” Proceeding of the International Symposium of Khattaras and Aflaj, Erachidiya, Morocco. October 9, 2018.

Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim. “Traditional Irrigated Agriculture in Oman: Operation and Management of the Aflaj System.” Water International, 26 (2) 2001: 259-264.

Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim. “The falaj irrigation system and water allocation markets in Northern Oman.” Agricultural Water Management, 91 (1-3) 2007: 71-77.

Al-Sulaimani, Zaher bin Khalid; Helmi, Tariq & Nash, Harriet. “The Social Importance and Continuity of Falaj Use in Northern Oman.” International History Seminar on Irrigation and Drainage, Tehran, Iran. May 2-5, 2007.

Cressey, George. “Qanats, Karez, and Foggaras.” Geographical Review, 48 (1) 1958: 27-44.

Index Mundi. Average precipitation in depth (mm per year) – Country Ranking. Accessed November 7, 2020. https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/AG.LND.PRCP.MM/rankings.

Med-O-Med. Cultural Landscapes. Aflaj Irrigation System, Oman. Accessed December 6, 2020. https://medomed.org/featured_item/the-cultural-landscape-of-aflaj-irrigation-system-oman/.

Sultanate of Oman. Ministry of Regional Municipalities & Water Resources. Water Resources in Oman.

Sultanate of Oman. Ministry of Tourism. Falaj Irrigation System. Accessed November 30, 2020. https://www.omantourism.gov.om/wps/portal/mot/tourism/oman/home/experiences/culture/aflaj/!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfGjzOItvc1dg40MzAzcA4OcDTyDQ4JNnP3CjM38zPQLsh0VAcNdjTY!/.

Sutton, Sally. “The falaj – a traditional co-operative system of water management.” Waterlines, 2 (3) 1984: 8-12.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage Centre. Ancient irrigation system (Oman) and Palaces of Genoa (Italy) among ten new sites on World Heritage List. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://whc.unesco.org/en/news/267/.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage List.Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman. Accessed November 30, 2020. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1207/.

University of Nizwa. Research. Aflaj Research Unit: About the Aflaj of Oman. Accessed December 6, 2020. https://www.unizwa.edu.om/index.php?contentid=1735&lang=en.

Zekri, Slim & Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim. “A millenarian water rights system and water markets in Oman.” Water International, 33 (3) 2008: 350-360.

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