Transforming tradition: The aflaj and changing role of traditional knowledge systems for collective water management

Elsevier, Journal of Arid Environments, Volume 151, April 2018
Remmington G.
Living in a harsh, desert climate, Omani rural communities have developed locally-appropriate knowledge to deal with water scarcity. Similar to the qanat, the aflaj taps into the natural water table and uses a gravity system to channel water through underground channels to villages. Traditional techniques of water management, such as the aflaj, represents a way of adapting to and coping with difficult climates which have persisted for millennia. However, knowledge systems have often ‘decayed’ with the onset of modernity. These management systems, which developed concurrently with early Omani date palm cultivation, have defined customary and hereditary water rights which are in decline. This article uses Ostrom's Common Pool Resource (CPR) framework, which prioritises the collective management of shared resources to maximise the benefit for all involved and avoid diminishing benefits that are created by the pursuit of individual goals. Using this framework, this article's evaluation of the literature found that traditional aflaj management systems have a great capacity to evolve and, therefore, the aflaj represents both a dying system, and a potential for climate adaptation. Historically, aflaj have been managed by ancient water users associations, which provide social controls and govern usage norms. The findings of this review are that the aflaj system's ability to respond to pressures of modernity from competing institutions, including markets, and embedded social capital mechanisms will influence its capacity to mitigate uncertain hydrology and climate. This article suggests ways in which the management of the aflaj can adapt to a multiple institutional framework to ‘transform’ collective water management.