The dates are dying

Many Omanis treat their farms like their children. As a main source of livelihood, they toil day and night to make sure that they are properly taken cared of, that the soil is rich and the plants are constantly watered. Located at the farthest corner of a wadi in Rustaq is the scenic and agricultural village of Mahbab. Here, just like in many parts of the country, villagers rely on agriculture to survive. The farms are filled with various types of fruit growing trees — lemons, some pomegranates and seasonal agricultural crops like wheat, barley, different legumes, onions, garlic among others.
Majority of what survived and thrived here for generations, however, are the date palms. For as long as anyone can remember, their father and grandfathers before them had been cultivating dates, but in recent years and in the near future, it might become a different story.
“This year, the village lost all the seasonal crops. We also lost a lot of our date palms including their much-awaited fruits. We actually have to buy dates this year from markets, “ said Suleiman al Muqbali, a resident of the village.
“I am 65 years old now and I do not remember that the falaj which the whole village relies on has ever dried up. But due to the scarcity of rain and the heat, the water has dramatically decreased which resulted in different challenges for the farmers. Thankfully, they never dried up completely,” Abdullah al Shukaili, a resident of the area, said.
The villagers do not solely credit the water loss to natural occurrence, however. Al Shukaili thinks that the artesian well dug a few metres from Mahbab’s main source of falaj water has contributed to their ever-growing problem.
Located about 1800 metres from the water source of the falaj, this shouldn’t have been allowed as the law they know does not permit digging wells near aflaj for less than 3 kilometres.
The villagers are concerned since wells are known to reach deep into the bowels of the earth and the artesian well might have tapped in the main sour of falaj water which resulted to their current water problem.
“We are currently relying on desalinated water, which is brought to us by water tankers for drinking and homely use, but farms are dying,” said Mohammed al Muqbali, another resident.
Because of the water problem, many of the inhabitants were displaced and are moving into the cities. The death of their crops, especially the date palms, means that they have to look for other sources of living. As of this time, only four families totalling to 50 people remain in the village — many of them without any job.
Al Khalew in Rustaq is another area affected by the drought. One of the ancient villages in the area, some of the houses here have been built sometimes in the 80s and they too are suffering from crops degradation.
“I feel very disappointed when I saw the Khalew’s farms. The situation has never been so bad,” shared Al Yaqdan al Nasri, a resident.
“Most of the houses and farms in the Khalew area get their water from an old well dug in the area, and for 30 years, I do not remember that the well water has ever dried up,” he said.
But aside from the main well, other wells were also dug and not all of them were legally licensed. He suspected that this unsustainable digging has resulted to the depletion of groundwater and has contributed significantly to the drying of the old wells.
Al Nasri pointed out that unlike some other parts of the country, they don’t have a huge dam that has enough water. He also said that the oldest and only dam in Rustaq located in Wadi Al Sahtan cannot meet the need of all the villages of the area.
He proposed that perhaps creating dams in various wadis in the area, such as in Wadi Sadaq and Wadi Gama, that would collect groundwater legally and sustainably can help the farms revive. Nasra al Hinai from al Alaya area shared that different villages in Rustaq face a different degree of challenges.
As she shared, “Our palm farms were not affected by the drought although one can definitely notice that many of the date palms are turning brown.”
“Some banana trees died due to the spacing of the irrigation period. To combat this, we now irrigate them every two weeks,” she said.
The Sultanate of Oman has been testing cloud seeding since 2013 — an ambitious plan to establish 12 stations to collect enough amount of rainwater to help out villages like those in Rustaq. Although the programme achieved success and has noted a rise in rainfall since 2014, the reality on the ground seemed to signify that a lot of things still needed to be done. If the situation cannot be mitigated, more aflaj and wells will definitely run dry and this will be most difficult for the farmers.

RUQAYA AL KINDI