Save our aflaj

MUSCAT, JULY 28 – It’s a combination of browns, blue greens. Yes, the rugged mountains, the deserts, the wadis, the pristine beaches, the rich plant life, all make the Sultanate of Oman a blend of varied beauty.
No doubt, Oman falls in a completely different league of history. The glitter here is not man-made. The landscape is spectacular and exotic. Definitely, it is the hidden jewel of Arabia!
A country that boasts of considerable geographical diversity, the outstanding feature in Oman is the Hajar mountain range. It runs in a huge arc from the north-west to the south-east.
Extending to about 300 km, the incredible Jebel Akhdhar, also known as the green mountains, is part of the Al Hajar Mountain range, the hill station that stands at 2,000-3,000 metres altitude.
From the scintillating heat in the summer, the region offers an escape to a cool and fresh air along with stunning panoramic view of the valley down.
Yet what is amazing is the never-drying natural water resources at the mountains. These magical waters are called individually as falaj, and collectively by the plural aflaj.
These unfailing springs were the freshwater resources that had supported small communities for hundreds of years in Jebel Akhdhar which receives more rainfall when compared to the desert plains.
“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.
They are dotted all around the mountains, hidden in canyons, and within valleys; all over Oman one can see falaj systems set up for irrigation, to channel this water across an otherwise arid land. Oman’s numerous wadis can sometimes stretch for kilometres.
Along them lie pools of tranquil turquoise-blue water, abundant greenery and vegetation, cultivated terraced fields, and even orchards and underground caves.
But with Jebel Akhdhar experiencing rapid socioeconomic development and urbanisation in recent decades, like other rural areas in the country, these water sources are facing threat.
“In the last few years, this region had undergone enormous changes due to rapid development. The resident and transient populations have increased and their activities exert severe stress on the water resources”, says a report in the Journal of Mountain Science.
There are 24 retention reservoirs in the area, but most are eutrophic and the nutrient loading is due to input of animal faecal matter via surface run-off, points out the report.
As expected, these waters contaminated with coliform bacteria and some have pathogenic Escherichia coli.
“Drinking water needs of all the villages met by groundwater extraction. Because of poor quality, the surface water in the reservoirs is under-utilised”, says the report.
A low-cost low-maintenance treatment system designed, constructed and operated in one village to clean the reservoir water for non-drinking human use. The treatment unit improved the water quality parameters.
In another research report published by Canadian Center of Science and Education, Mohammed Saif al Kalbani and others find that water quality assessment of the selected aflaj in the area indicated that quality parameters are within the permissible limits set by Omani regulations of wastewater reuse for irrigation.
However, most of the aflaj are contaminated with Escherichia coli bacteria; indicating unacceptable for drinking as per the guidelines of Omani and WHO standards.
Overall, the selected aflaj are excellent or good in quality for irrigation based on the evaluation of different hazards parameters including per cent sodium, residual sodium carbonate, soluble sodium percentage, residual sodium bicarbonate, permeability index, Kelley’s index, and magnesium hazard; indicating their suitability for irrigation for the majority of crops and soils.
A survey among the adult male population of the village showed their eagerness to adopt this system and use the treated reservoir water for uses other than agriculture.
“Establishment of these treatment units in other villages should reduce the pressures on groundwater extraction”, suggests the report.

Text and pictures by SAMUEL KUTTY