A restored Falaj (irrigation) system is now helping farmers in Bithnah to grow better crops using lesser amount of water. The ancient Falaj, which was ruined and unused, was restored by nonprofit organisation Emirates Nature-WWF, through a project sponsored by Etihad Rail.

“The Falaj was broken when we first came to the area,” said Altaf Habib, Projects Manager at Emirates Nature-WWF. “When we attended the local majlis, they requested us to restore it. Today, it is irrigating eight farms in the area.”

The system is designed in such a way that no external forces are required for it to operate. “Water flows because of the force of gravity,” he said. “This means no machines are needed to pump water. This means it is sustainable and does not require any power sources. During the harsh summer months, we have to resort to pumping water from a nearby well and transporting it to a tank that then travels through the Falaj pipes.”

Al Bithnah is located on a 3,000-year-old trade route which runs adjacent to the Wadi Ham, the longest valley in the UAE. This ancient route has traditionally linked communities from Asia, Europe and Africa. Merchants would travel by land and sea, trading spices, dates, dried fish, frankincense and other commodities.

Empowering local communities

According to Altaf, the organisation works to empower local communities across the UAE. “When we pick a place to develop, we sit down with the locals and ask them what they want help with,” he said. “That is a process we follow at all the communities we work with because they are the ones who know best what is needed for the area.”

In addition to developing the Falaj, the team also educated local farmers about modern techniques. “They grew date palms and used the flood irrigation system,” he said. “This required a lot of water. So, we took three sample farms and fitted them with a system which would only release the amount of water required by that tree, thus minimising the wastage. This has caused the farms to reduce their water consumption by up to 20 per cent.”

Apart from farming, local residents also wanted the area to be developed for tourists. “To encourage ecotourism, we built a trail for hikers around the loop of the mountain in partnership with Fujairah tourism, landing back at the Bithnah fort,” he said. “Since this area is a protected archaeological site, this has also helped disturbances to the area as most hikers stick to the trail path. We have also installed 17 signboards on the route to help people better understand the history of the area.”

Helping earn

In addition to rebuilding the Falaj, the team from Emirates Nature-WWF also helped the local community create a new income source. They began planting Moringa trees in the vicinity. “Within three years of planting, these Moringa trees give seeds which can be pressed for oil,” said Altaf. “Moringa oil is quite expensive and has a long shelf life. So far we have planted about 800 trees, starting from the end of 2023. After three years, these will give a steady source of income to the locals.”

During the recent unprecedented rains and subsequent flooding, the Falaj was completely submerged and filled with dirt. Last week, volunteers of the organisation cleaned it up so that it could be used again. One of them was 12-year-old American expat, Charlie. A member of the Boy Scouts of America, Charlie often volunteers at various projects.

“There was a lot of mud and dirt in the Falaj,” he said. “We used long rakes to clear them out. It was hard work but it would help the farmers a lot. One group of volunteers, with younger children, planted Moringa trees around the Falaj.”

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