82% of Oman is desert and only 1.5% of the total land is under agriculture. It’s truly remarkable that a country which receives an average of only 100mm rain per year, still manages to have 5% of its population eking out a living through agriculture.
When it rains in Oman, people consider it as a lucky day. They thank god for this gift of nature, so many of us have taken for granted. Since, for the Omanis, water is akin to liquid gold, very innovative methods have been used for centuries to trap this water.
One of the most important ones is Falaj, which is a channel that is dug in the earth, through which water runs. Mountain water is collected and flows through the Falaj forming an oasis at the bottom. There is no machinery used and is entirely done with the help of gravity. It is an ancient irrigation system that originated in Oman from 500 AD. Aflaj is the plural of falaj, and is an Arabic word that means “split into parts”.
The falaj irrigation system has long supported a 3-tiered crop approach (i.e., three crops raised at different heights).
Tier-1 (on top) : Dates ; Tier-2 (middle) : Lime, bananas; Tier-3 (lower level) : Alfalfa & vegetables.
Shafts are built at 20-metre distances along the tunnel. They also have a ring of burnt clay that removes debris and helps in ventilation. The ring protects the channel from destruction in case the tunnel collapses and also prevents the falaj from flooding.
There are more than 11,000 alfaj in Oman and some of these are listed under the World Heritage sites.
Interestingly, most villages have a designated person who acts as the ‘Water Monitor’. It’s his job to get into the canal, (which is only as broad as a man’s shoulder & a metre in height) and to see that there are no blockages and that the canal is kept clean.
In the 8 years that I spent in Oman, I travelled the length and breadth of it many times. It’s around 1,100km in length with only the northern & southern tips inhabited. The remaining parts are desert. It is in these portions that you will find the maze of Aflaj. They never cease to astound you. My name for these magical creations is : “The giver of life”.