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Oman sees farm crisis as ancient canals run dry

Long droughts and an increase in agriculture put 11,000 'falaj' water sources under pressure.

MUSCAT // The ancient aflaj system in Oman, once used in warfare by attackers to cut off precious water supply to communities under siege, is now facing dry spells that threaten farmers with lower crop production. The falaj (singular of aflaj) collects groundwater through a natural infiltration process that then flows to the surface by gravity. According to the agriculture ministry, no one knows who first built the network, but the aflaj systems are considered remarkable engineering works considering that digging and topography technology was not available thousands of years ago.

Oman has about 11,000 individual aflaj canals, according to environment and climate ministry statistics, and the water gushing from them plays a major role in rural farming communities. The aflaj provided 500 million cubic metres of irrigation water in 1985 and increased rapidly to 1.6 billion cubic metres by 2008, according to the agriculture ministry records, due to the rise in the number of new farms.

The records also show that, at the current rate of population growth, water demand will reach 7.5 billion cubic metres by 2025. Oman's escalating water problems echo those of the UAE, highlighted in "Watershed", a recent National series. With scarce freshwater resources and growing demand, the UAE relies heavily on expensive desalination for its supplies and many of its falaj systems are no longer used.

Khalfan Hamood al Toby, who owns a 90-hectare farm at Sawadi in the Batnah region, said water shortage from his system reduced the yield of fruit and vegetable production by 20 per cent in 2009. "The water flow in the falaj has been erratic, especially last year. Sometimes it drops to just two metres in a falaj stream of four metres deep. It may stay that way until the next rainfall. I have to ration the water in my farm or give priority to certain crops," Mr al Toby said.

Mr al Toby has not connected his farm to the government's main water supply. Natural groundwater flowing into the aflaj has traditionally watered most of the farms. Use of the government supply is cost prohibitive for many rural farmers. A typical aflaj system is owned by farmers of the whole village, each contributing money on annual basis for its maintenance. A falaj canal can run for up to 30km and can have numerous branches reaching all farms, even local mosques. Owners of new lands developed for farming can rent water from the owners or become shareholders, depending on the management rules.

The distribution of water depends on the size of the farms and it is not equal to all, according to Khalifa al Mazrui, a shareholder of an aflaj system in Nizwa, said. "But due to water scarcity now, we see some farmers pull water by using electrical motors on their end of the falaj to draw more from the system then what is allocated to them." Environment and agriculture experts blame longer drought periods and the increasing number of farming lands for the strain on the natural water network.

"The rainfall, which is the main source of aflaj, is never predictable in Oman," Ahmed al Harthy, director of meteorology at the ministry of climate, said. The annual precipitation is between 75mm and 100mm, according to environment and climate ministry data, supplying about two billion cubic metre of water a year to the aflaj systems. However, the ministry of agriculture officials said that apart from longer spells of drought, more land set aside for farming, overwatering and water wastage caused by improper maintenance by farmers put a strain on the ancient irrigation system.

"As the economy improves, wealthy businessmen buy lands in rural areas to grow crops to satisfy rising local demands on fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, existing farmers tend to overwater and ignore aflaj leaks or blocks because of not doing proper maintenance," Rashid al Lamki, superintendent of northern Oman farming lands at the agriculture ministry, said. He said the government pays to maintain the sources of the aflaj systems and builds aquifers to collect the rainwater, but it was responsibility of the farmers to maintain the canals running to their lands.

About 55 per cent of the Omani population of 1.9 million people depend for their livelihoods on farming. There are more than 120,000 registered farms. In the past five years, there has been a growth of two per cent per year of lands purchased for farming use, according to Mr al Lamki. "Perhaps [Mr al Lamki] has a point on the lack of proper maintenance by aflaj owners, but shouldn't the government consider extending the grant to cover that as well? After all, if the water situation deteriorates further, then we will see farmers start abandoning the trade," Mr al Mazrui, the shareholder in Nizwa, said.

In a report last year, the government said Oman hoped to provide its residents solely with locally produced fruits and vegetables by 2015. Currently the country produces 75 per cent of locally consumed fruits and vegetables. "That's the reason the government must step in and do more about the situation instead of blaming the drought and other factors," Mr al Toby said. foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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