How Oman’s falaj system helped the country thrive for centuries

Story: Ali Al Badi & Gautam Viswanathan

Travel through the interiors of Oman, and you are at some point or the other, bound to come across long stretches of canals transporting water to locations you might not know of.

Built to carry water from the country’s natural reservoirs to farmlands located sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, the Sultanate’s falaj system is one that has nourished the country’s fields and helped grow food to feed millions for centuries.

Although the falaj networks are assumed to be about 1,500 years old and have been named on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, archaeological evidence supporting them goes back to 2,500 BC. There are still 3,000 systems active in the country, and serve as one of the main sources of water for fields.

To ensure all farmers and agricultural landowners get a fair and equal share of the water that helps their crops grow, an ancient system of distribution among people called the Qa’adah was set up. With its practice spanning centuries, the Qa’adah is an auction system designed to ensure everyone who needs access to falaj water is able to get it at an affordable price.
Zahir Al Zakwani, who lives in Manah in the Dakhliyah Governorate, explained to T Magazine the concept of the Qa’adah, which is based on the concepts of sharing and mutual benefit.

 “The process of Qa’adah sees all of us sit down at an auction, where the precious waters of the falaj are rented to us, so that we can use it to water our crops. Every falaj has a system, under which people are allowed to use the water in half an hour slots. The system was designed to ensure everyone gets water, because the farmers here know how much water they need, and that others need it as well.”

Al Qa’adah normally takes place once every six months, and involves those members of a community who wish to use this water to irrigate their crops. This age-old ceremony is traditionally seasonal, and is meant to coincide with the farming period in the Sultanate, which normally runs when the weather is relatively cooler. It starts in September, when the harsh months of the summer have gone by, and ends around March or April, when temperatures steadily begin to pick up again.

“The auctioneer announces to the gathering the price of a half-hour slot, and then asks people to bid for them,” explained Fatima Al Hinai, who is from Ibri, the capital of the Dhahirah Governorate. “The price starts at about one or two Omani Rials, and those who are interested to buy at this price, place their canes on the shoulder of the auctioneer. The price continues to rise until there is only one cane resting on the dallal, and the owner of that cane gets that particular half-hour slot.”

The auction is led by a man called the ‘dallal’ – the Arabic word for a ‘fixer’ or ‘agent’. He is hired by the owners of the falaj, because of his experience in taking charge of such occasions. The profession of the dallal in Oman is traditionally hereditary.

The art of acting as an intermediary between two parties that require goods and services from each other is passed down from grandfather to father to son. The more skilled the dallal is at ensuring all parties are given a fair deal, the better his reputation, and the more transactions over which he will be approached to preside.

The division of water among the homes served by the falaj depends on the volume of water flowing through a falaj, and the amount of time for which it can be shared. This unit of measurement is called an ‘athar’. While it might be intimately familiar to locals, particularly those who live in the villages, the concept of the athar is not something foreigners might know of.

Al Zakwani was able to both define the concept of the athar and explain how it was used among Omani communities, among whose members there is an agreement to share the waters of the falaj, so that everyone benefits from the precious waters, instead of a few hoarding it for themselves, harming the rest in the process.

“It depends on the amount of water that flows through the falaj network,” he explained. “The number of athars for every falaj depends on the amount of water flowing through that falaj. For example, some falaj networks may have 36 athars, while others may have 50 athars. Irrespective of the amount of water that is present in the falaj, everyone who has bid for the water in the falaj will get the amount of water they are due, during the time for which they have reserved it. People can also bid for a quarter athar or a half athar, if they want to.”

Having taken part in the Qa’adah himself – Al Zakwani owns many farms in the Dakhiliyah Governorate, which he irrigates with waters from the falaj – he also told us about the system of ownership of the falaj network. Sections of an entire falaj system are divided up, and jointly owned by individuals, as well as charitable organisations that encourage community service to help the less fortunate.

Some falaj systems are also so vast that they serve several communities, and to ensure everyone gets a chance to use its water, access to the irrigation network is sometimes often limited to just one region, before the water is then diverted elsewhere so that people in other areas can also use it. Al Qa’adah normally takes place during the final month of the Islamic calendar, which is known as Dhul Al Hijjah. The Qa’adah itself is bisected into two types.

“I have personally five athars of the water from Falaj Daris, of which I have kept four, so as to water my properties, and this helps me cover my needs,” explained Zahir Al Zakwani. “I have rented out the other athar, for one year. This is permissible under Qa’adah, and is called ‘constant rent’, because it is over a longer period of time. The other version of Qa’adah involves rental during a shorter period, and is called ‘inconstant rent’. This is actually better for both parties, because the owner of the falaj is able to share this among many people who need it, while the renter can get as much water as he needs without wasting it.

“An annual Qa’adah also costs less money…if you want to rent an athar every day for a year, then you might need to pay OMR50 or 100, but if you want it for a shorter period of time, it will cost more. For example, if you pay OMR 5 per athar and rent it for 48 weeks, then you’re paying the falaj owner OMR 240,” he explained.

Although it is an ancient custom, the practice of Qa’adah does relate to a system followed around the world: that of the international stock market, as it is based on the concept of supply and demand. “This custom is a traditional one that we’ve been following for many, many years over a very long period of time. It has been passed down to us from our forefathers and we will pass it down to future generations as well,” said Fatima Al Hinai.