The shade of the palm grove was so dense that it seemed to be alive, a humid layer clinging to the underside of every branch, reaching upwards from the soil along each row of vegetables. It offered immediate relief, a balm against the harsh sun and parched cobbles at the bottom of the valley. Breathing it in through the nose, the shade carried with it the scents of life: plots of soil stained dark by irrigation water and flowers opening, waiting to be pollinated.
Ali Mohammed Amedhani led me along a footpath, and we stepped over an elevated channel filled with running water swooping in an ingenious overpass above yet another channel with burbling water below. Like a miniature highway system branching out as it reaches residential neighborhoods, these channels divided further as they approach their destination. Makeshift gates of stone, cloth or metal blocked occasional openings along the path and kept the water on its course. One gate was open, and we watched the water flow in and nourish a small plot of freshly tilled soil. Amedhani’s message was clear: the traditional irrigation systems, or aflaj, and the date palm groves that depend on them are both thriving in Medha, a small exclave of Oman surrounded entirely by the Emirate of Fujairah.
After a month in Ras al Khaimah documenting palm groves and ancient aflaj, I had begun to worry. Many of the groves I visited were dying, and most of the historic aflaj I recorded had run dry. Often, the only signs of a former grove were husks of tree trunks scoured by wind-blown sand and irrigation channels so buried that their slight depressions were only visible in the raking light of dawn. But here in Medha, the traditional aflaj remained full of water and the palms were thriving.
Trained as a hydraulic engineer and formerly employed by Oman’s Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources (MRMWR), Amedhani attributed much of the success to communal stewardship. Rules governing the “national wealth”—water-- had been part of communal water management practices and were later incorporated into Omani law as the aflaj were assigned to the jurisdiction of MRMWR. “Within a radius of 1-3km from the source of the felaj, a red zone was established where it is illegal to dig any new wells that would disrupt the flow that the whole community depends on.”
In the late 1990’s, he explained, the government of Oman mounted a campaign to document and preserve aflaj throughout their country, resulting the inscription of these sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list and ongoing community development projects in rural areas. “Every local office of MRMWR has an outreach program, intended in part to maintain a sense of connection between the community and the aflaj. This includes mothers, children, and all aspects of society.” Children in Medha attend annual field trips to visit the date palms in the center of their community. Through early and frequent exposure to the groves, and with the ongoing support and management of MRMWR, Amedhani maintains that residents are optimistic that their aflaj will avoid the fate of so many in the surrounding Emirates, where the overexploitation of ground water resources has led to the decline of the entire system: the water source, the aflaj irrigation infrastructure and the dependent palm groves.
In Ras Al Khaimah, recent efforts on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture to repair the aflaj at Rafaq and Howailat is commendable, but the channels still do not flow with the volumes they once did, suggesting that the water table has declined through sustained drought and pumping by private wells. It may be that efforts to restore these two channels arrived too late. The best way to save what remains of the date palm groves in Ras al Khaimah, as well as to assist with local economic and touristic development, is to embark on the process of inventory, protection, and community engagement pioneered by Oman more than twenty years ago.
The many aflaj waterworks across Ras Al Khaimah and the greater United Arab Emirates are a testament to human ingenuity. The extraordinary inventiveness and communal efforts that once went into creating and maintaining these systems speak to the connected communities of the past, should be a point of pride in the present, and an inspiration for the future.
To learn more about the aflaj waterworks of Ras Al Khaimah, check out the Al Qasimi Foundation’s open-access policy paper The Aflaj Waterworks of Ras Al Khaimah: Current Conditions and Prospects for Conservation by Visiting Scholar William Raynolds.
William Raynolds is an adjunct assistant professor of historic preservation at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, where his work focuses on the documentation of heritage sites and problems at the intersection of preservation, planning, and the protection of blended natural and cultural resources.