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Digging Deep into Qanat/Aflaj Irrigation Systems

In the arid landscapes of modern-day Iran, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, water management would have been an issue since ancient times. To deal with this, practical solutions were built to help conserve water and nothing attests to this more than water channel systems, known as qanat and aflaj, which have been used to irrigate Persian lands and the Arabian Peninsula for millennia.

Qanats are said to have originated in Persia early in the first millennium BCE. The qanat water system consists of man-made canals or waterways that stretch long distances above or below ground which harnesses groundwater, spring water, and rainwater and transport it thanks to a gradual tilt in the design and the pull of gravity. Vertical shafts are sunk in the channels at about every 20 meters to provide ventilation and access for repair.

Added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 2016, 'The Persian Qanat' is a testament to the ingenuity of the Persians. According to Ministry of Energy statistics, about 36,300 qanats have been identified in Iran today which provide 10 Billion MCM water per year!

There are also still plenty of underground water channels streaming through various farming villages in the UAE and Oman which have existed for over 2500 years. Recognizing the huge value of the ancient waterways, today’s Emirati and Omani governments have restored and renovated many and put them back in use. Aflaj are still widespread in Oman where there are currently 4,112 such channels with an annual flow of 680 MCM. Five of the Omani aflaj systems were included in UNESCO's World Heritage lists and in 2006 the government reported that it spent one million riyals every year on preserving them.

In the UAE there are seven oases, the largest being in Al Ain with overland channels irrigating 1.2 acres of land — supplying over 550 farms. UNESCO declared The Al Ain Oasis to be a heritage site in 2011.

The qanat/aflaj system is one of the world's oldest engineering marvels and the continued flow of water through them is proof of their importance in history.

Works cited:

UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “The Persian Qanat.”, 2017,

Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre,

Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Cultural Sites of al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas).” UNESCO World Heritage Centre,

Seyed Hamed Alemohammad, and Shervan Gharari. Qanat: An Ancient Invention for Water Management in Iran. 2013.

“Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman - UNESCO World Heritage.” Google Arts & Culture,

Bassam Abu-Hijleh. Testing and Evaluation of a Smart Irrigation System towards Smart Landscaping in UAE ‫اإلمارات‬ ‫دولة‬ ‫في‬ ‫الذكية‬ ‫الطبيعية‬ ‫المناظر‬ ‫نحو‬ ‫الذكي‬ ‫الري‬ ‫نظام‬ ‫وتقييم‬ ‫اختبار‬ ‫المتحدة‬ ‫العربية‬ by FATMA ALSULAIMANI a Dissertation Submitted in Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of MSc SUSTAINABLE DESIGN and BUILT ENVIRONMENT at the British University in Dubai. 2017.


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