Aflaj Research Unit a world first for Nizwa
Ray Petersen –
The enthusiasm of Dr Abdullah Saif al Ghafri, Director of the Aflaj Research Unit (ARU) of the University of Nizwa (UoN), for his speciality is evident from the first moment. “The aflaj have touched and shaped our lives from our first moments, blessing us, nurturing and sustaining us through our lives, and they have been at the root of all of our social and community structures for over 5,000 years.”
He believes Omanis owe it to their ancestors, if only on the grounds of a historical obligation, to reward the water systems that have sustained a nation socially, economically, and in terms of cottage industries, industrially, to maintain these magnificent reticulation systems in perpetuity.
Dr Al Ghafri was initially educated in the Sultanate, but travelled to Japan in 1997 and completed a Masters in Water Management, staying on to complete his PhD in Environmental Resources, on both occasions the aflaj were at the core of his research theses. A desire to retain the traditional technologies used in the construction and maintenance were not lost to the nation, and the world, have led him far and wide in his academic quest for global co-operation.
At a conference in Azerbaijan, in 2009, Dr Al Ghafri recruited an American Fulbright Scholar, Timothy Schettino, as a research fellow, and subsequently appointed Dr Dennis Powers as head of Projects. Currently Isshaq al Shabibi is the resident research assistant. A coordinator is expected to be appointed in the near future, and two interns are also probable appointments in the short term. This should allow Dr Al Ghafri to move forward on the ARU’s current research project on the socio-economic and environmental sustainability of the aflaj.
Explaining that, “New York alone gets more rain in a month than Oman gets in ten years, so in places like that, water is cheap, but for us it’s not,” Dr Al Ghafri gets right to the heart of why organisations such as Unesco, who identify world heritage sites, and Earthwatch, a UK-based organisation that brings scientists and everyday people and communities together to conduct environmentally responsible research, have recognised the work to date, of the ARU.
It isn’t difficult to see the impact the aflaj have had over the five or ten thousand years in the Sultanate, when you realise that a falaj may run for as far as 29 kms, with air shafts every 30 metres, to service the main water tunnels carved painstakingly, by hand, through rock. There are over 10,000 of these man-made shafts and tunnels throughout Oman, according to Dr Al Ghafri.
They are a miracle of historical engineering, still maintained by local characters who put their lives at risk, almost daily, by going down into the water, with only a hammer, chisel, bare hands, and “nerves of steel,” as Dr Al Ghafri put it, to get their job done of keeping the water running. The skills of these incredible men, some in their sixties, are one thing, but their bravery can be likened to the earliest of coal-miners, where the life expectancy was extremely pessimistic.
“A viable falaj requires three elements,” commented Dr Al Ghafri, “Natural, human, and technological, and if any one of those is missing, the falaj cannot function.” He understands why some people today can be blasé about the ‘old system,’ but he is adamant that the historical retention of the aflaj as a working model can be justified in today’s world as possible ecological and environmental treasure troves of information. “We must be enthusiastic, aggressive, and look at all dimensions and alternatives and possibilities.”
So where does the ARU go from here? Dr Al Ghafri is delighted that from 14 students in 2008, the ARU’s course is attracting around 150 students every year, and registrations for the Spring Semester at the UoN, stand at 44 students after only two days. He has praised the support of the Chancellor, Professor Ahmed bin Khalfan al Rawahi, in the establishment and continued operation of the ARU, his advice and guidance.
And what of Dr Al Ghafri himself, recognised by the Gulf Cooperation Council as an ‘Outstanding Researcher,’ and that only one of many formal recognitions of his work in his chosen field. “The aflaj have many implications, I believe, in the areas of our society, for industry, and as a source of income through eco-tourism opportunities. Hopefully, both the public and private sectors will see the potential. After all, Egypt may have the gift of the Nile, but Oman has the aflaj.”
Dr Al Ghafri is a modest and unassuming individual, who has chosen, it would appear, an obscure field of study in which to become the world’s leading authority. But his enthusiastic advocacy of the Aflaj Research Unit probably ensures that the falaj system will not be a global mystery for very much longer.