x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Desert survival: finding water

Water wells provide not only a source of water, but also directions for navigating through the desert.

Thani Mohammed bin Belaisha, left, with his uncle Majed bin Belaisha Al Falasi at the well named Bin Belaisha after Majed’s father dug it in 1964 at a depth of 20 arm spans.
Thani Mohammed bin Belaisha, left, with his uncle Majed bin Belaisha Al Falasi at the well named Bin Belaisha after Majed’s father dug it in 1964 at a depth of 20 arm spans.

ABU DHABI // Water wells were to the Bedouin what petrol stations are to motorists.

The Bedouin knew every detail of wells across the country. The reservoirs provided not only a source of water, but also directions for navigating through the desert.

"We knew exactly how many wells there were on our way, like petrol stations, to refill on water," says Mohammed bin Touq, 60, a desert Bedouin from Dubai.

The Bedouin developed the ability to read subtle clues about where water might be.

Many followed the twittering or flight of birds, while others realised the middle of deep dune valleys was often a reliable source, as rain collected, seeped into the ground and settled between layers of soil.

"Basically it's all about walking from one water point to another," says Sam McConnell, a desert guide and expedition leader. "The Bedu know where the wells and springs are."

Mr bin Touq says most Bedouin dug man-sized wells, between 3 and 10 metres deep, with their bare hands.

"It's a one-man process that takes on average four to five months," he says. "We could tell there was water in the proximity by the presence of vegetation.

"The groundwater table wasn't very deep back then so you could even find water 1 metre into the ground."

The Bedouin would dig until they hit water and the well would be named after the man who did the job.

Mr bin Touq's wife, a coastal Bedouin, used a sheepskin water vessel called a qerba to desalinate sea water and make it potable.

Majed bin Belaisha's father, Thani Ali Belaisha Al Falasi, dug a well in 1964 on the outskirts of Dubai, towards Al Awir.

"The well was dug twice because the first attempt was a failure as no water was found," says Mr bin Belaisha. "The second time was a bit further away and that worked."

The well, in Al Hebab area, dried out about 1974 but is still named Bin Belaisha after the man who dug it.

"The well is now abandoned but mentioned when giving directions to people and it is even recognised on maps," says Mr bin Belaisha.

In dire straits, the Bedouin would drain a camel's body of its water.

"We used to kill the camel and drink the water stored in its stomach," says Mr bin Belaisha. "They can store water for a much longer time than other animals."

Camels can drink about 100 litres of water in only eight minutes. That water is then lost gradually, over more than a fortnight.

"The milk of camels and goats could also serve as a means to replace water," says Ali Manea Alahbabi, a retired Emirati living in Al Ain.

"Any water we would get would be stored in satchels made of sheep or goatskin for long journeys."

The Bedouin were also acclimatised to the desert heat and able to withstand greater dehydration than most.

"We consider less than 5 per cent of body weight loss as mild dehydration," says Dr Mohammed Amin Al Otaibi, a consultant physician in Ras al Khaimah.

"Severe dehydration is more than 10 per cent of body weight loss due to vomiting and diarrhoea, which can also cause death."

Dr Maurice Kalash, the head of emergency at Abu Dhabi's Al Noor Hospital, says most people can only survive 24 hours without water.

"Bedouins can maybe last an extra 24 hours without water because their body adjusts itself through sweat," Dr Kalash says.

Mr McConnell says the rule of thumb is three days but depending on the availability of shade and daytime temperature, "it may well be less".

"The bottom line is that you must be prepared," he says.

cmalek@thenational.ae