Aflaj: What is the ancient desert irrigation system used in Al Ain?

Aflaj system and camel racing added to Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

The time-honoured tradition of camel racing is included on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as is aflaj – the system of Iron Age water channels used for farm irrigation in Al Ain.

Camel races were submitted jointly by the UAE and Oman, while aflaj was submitted by the Emirates.

The UN list aims to ensure protection of culture and heritage and the UAE now has 11 elements registered.

Much is known about the glory of camel racing, but aflaj is a lesser known yet no less important element.

Aflaj water channels are dug by hand and provide irrigation to arable land.

These channels flow through farming villages in Al Ain, dividing irrigation equally between farms in a series of underground streams.

The technique is still commonly used in Oman. Used during the Iron Age, they allowed settlements to expand.

The famous Al Ain aflaj system is thought to be one of the region’s oldest, having been in existence for about 3,000 years.

It was restored by the Founding President, Sheikh Zayed, in 1946.

Popular oases can be found in Al Ain’s Hili, Bida bin Saoud, Thugaiban, Al Madam and Jabeeb. But what is their story and how do they work?

How does aflaj irrigation work?

Water is extracted from underground wadis and wells by digging out deep channels.

Gravity does its work and the water flows through the system without need for mechanical pumps.

It provides a constant flow of water through the oasis that increases in capacity during heavy rain.

Components of the Aflaj system

Aflaj systems have three parts.

The first is umm al falaj, or mother well, which is the main water source, from where tunnels of varying length deliver large amounts of water underground to its destination.

Access shafts are built at 20-metre intervals along the water tunnels, protected by rings of clay as a fail-safe to stop flooding should the tunnels collapse.

Aflaj is the plural of the word ‘falaj’. There are various types. A Dawoodi falaj supplies water year-round, with channels up to 10 metres long.

An Ayni falaj collects water from springs, while a ghaili falaj draws supplies from natural resources such as ponds or lakes and is used more during times of increased rain.

Camel racing 

Camel racing is a bedrock of Emirati heritage.  Every year, tens of thousands of camels from across the Gulf compete for hundreds of millions of dirhams in prize money at landmark calendar events.

The Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Festival, usually held in February, is one of the UAE's largest camel racing events. It is held at Al Marmoon racetrack in Dubai, where participants compete to win more than Dh100 million in prize money.

More than 300 races are held during the festival, with the fastest camels qualifying for the season’s finale at the Al Marmoon Heritage Festival in April.

Emirati camels compete with others from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman, with prizes handed out to the five fastest.

The festival culminates with a nod to Emirati heritage, with craft stalls, foods and dancing during five days of celebration.

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