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Aflaj & Springs

Aflaj (plural of falaj) are conduits which are dug in the ground to convey water by gravity from one place to another; there are more than 3,000 active aflaj in the Sultanate of Oman. It is believed that this technique of tapping ground water resources originated from Central Asia and Iran and spread to other semi-arid areas which have appropriate physiographic conditions - in the Sahara, China and even South America. However, recently, the Italian mission has referenced the origin of aflaj to Oman. In these areas village communities tapped into groundwater aquifers with the help of long, gently sloping channels when surface flows were intermittent or unreliable. The time of the construction of the first falaj in the world is shrouded in antiquity. Early written accounts on ground water occurrences and the engineering and surveying techniques involved in exploiting them is provided by Mohammed bin Al Hasan Al Karaji in 1,017 in the fascinating work “Kitab inbat al miyah al khafiya”, or Book of the Extraction of Hidden Waters.

Many of the aflaj in Oman have existed for over 1,500 years and some of them may date back over 2,500 years. Some aflaj have been constructed relatively recently: aflaj in the Ibra - Mudharib area were constructed some 150 years ago. The galleries excavated in solid rock may continue their work in collecting seepage unattended for hundreds of years. In many cases, even the location of the mother well is uncertain, since after successful completion of the scheme, entrance openings were closed. Most aflaj are found in the wadis of Al Hajar Al Gharbi. These mountains are characterised by bold relief and paucity of soil and vegetation: surface runoff is therefore rapid, but short-lived. In past centuries, aflaj were the only means to enable people to have a constant water supply.

Cultivable area and water demand of aflaj system in Oman

Region
Number of Aflaj
Cultivated Areas (ha)
Water Demand MCM/Year
Daudi
Ainy
Ghaily
Total
Muscat
12
109
52
173
1932
30.1
Al Batinah
153
382
674
1209
6707
95.2
Ad Dhairah
86
114
273
473
4401
66
Ad Dakhliyah
183
169
149
501
10002
146.8
As Sharqiyah
193
215
253
661
3442
57.9
Salalah
 
 
 
 
 
7.7 *
Total
627
989
1401
3017
26484
403.7

* Includes spring fed farms

Springs
A spring is a natural discharge point of groundwater at the surface of the ground. Water that emerges at the surface without a perceptible current is called a seep.Water in springs and seeps originates from rainfall that has soaked into the soil and percolated into underlying rocks. This simple fact was not recognised in ancient times:

Spring water was thought to originate from some mythical underground ocean. Springs have played an important role in the settlement pattern of arid lands, where they have served as a local source of water supply and irrigation. Water from mineralised and thermal springs has also long been used for its therapeutic value.

The extreme relief and structure of the northern Oman mountains give rise to many springs in the valleys. Springs in Oman discharge their water from two major geologic systems, Al Hajar limestones and the Ophiolites. The limestones are porous, with flow through fractures and faults, and usually bear good quality water. The Ophiolites are less permeable, tend to be low yielding and may yield alkaline water: many such springs exist in Ad Dakhliyah, Ad Dhahirah and Al Batinah, where sometimes they form ‘blue pools’ as a result of calcite precipitation when alkaline water mixes with wadi water containing bicarbonate. In general, the pH of spring water in Oman ranges from 7.4 to 11.9. Some of the springs are fed by percolating water that has reached considerable depths and been heated before it finally emerges at the surface. Springs on the northern side of the northern Oman mountains are often hot and have had local importance for therapeutic purposes for many years.

There are several hundred springs in Oman and most of them are located in the mountainous areas. These springs vary according to their discharge, temperature and water quality. The most famous are the hot springs of Al Kasfah at Rustaq, Al Thawara at Nakhl and the cold spring of Razat in Salalah area. Ain Al Kasfah is well known for its strategic location while Ain Al Thawarah is characterized by its unique landscape. Both springs yield good quality water, which has been used over the centuries for water supply, irrigation and therapeutic purposes. Ain Razat is known for its attractive landscape and its high water yield, which has been used for crop irrigation. The quality of spring water depends on the chemical properties of the minerals forming the rocks through which water infiltrates into and through the ground. With the advent of the Renaissance, recreation facilities were established near these springs turning them into attractive sites for citizens, residents and tourists alike.