Water problems and age-old solutions: The Water and Humanity project in Oman
This article was published in Dutch in ZemZem 1/2021 on climate change.
In the Middle East, water shortages have historically necessitated the establishment of collective and collaborative management systems. Today, due to desertification and rapid climate change, that necessity seems more pressing than ever. ZemZem sat down with Thomas Andersson and Wafa al-Maamari to talk about the Omani Water and Humanity project.[i]
‘Water can cause conflicts, but can also be a unifying factor,’ Andersson argues. He is the managing director of the Organisation for Quality and Innovation Strategies (Qualies), the company behind the Water and Humanity project. ‘Ancient civilizations were very skilled in their water management,’ he explains. In North-Africa and the Middle East, underground aqueducts (mostly referred to as qanat or falaj) have been used for thousands of years. ‘Oman in fact has the strongest presence of still-used traditional solutions for water management.’ Today, they also serve as an inspiration for Oman’s inclusive role in regional water diplomacy and for the endeavours of Water and Humanity.
Qualies, a non-profit organisation based in Oman’s capital Muscat, started this project in 2019. Water and Humanity presents itself as an independent platform that connects scientists, private companies, and politicians of different backgrounds and expertise to find new solutions to existing water problems. ‘The way water issues are approached is quite compartmentalized, fragmented,’ Andersson explains. International and regional water diplomacy, national water security, water usage in agriculture and water on the household level are mostly regarded separately. ‘Water and Humanity employs a holistic approach and is action-oriented.’
Pieter Hoff’s Waterboxx
Mismanagement of water
Oman is a suitable country for a project like Water and Humanity. In addition to the rich history of water management, the country houses unique ecosystems and a large biodiversity. This is due to the combination of an important coast line, mountain ridges, deserts, and wadis. ‘Today, we are witnessing a tremendous mismanagement of water,’ according to Andersson. ‘In the agricultural sector, for instance, 85 percent of the water that is used for conventional irrigation goes up in thin air. It just evaporates. 85 percent!’
At the same time, most drinking water in Oman is produced by desalination plants. Desalination of seawater is a process that causes a number of problems. Andersson: ‘The large quantities of brine that the procedure generates return into the ocean, where it can disrupt ecosystems. It also takes a large amount of energy to get the desalination going.’
Water in Oman is expensive to produce, which most Omanis are not aware of. The relative lack of awareness is due to the government’s heavy subsidization of water consumption, both agricultural and private. As a result, Oman faces high water consumption and little public awareness of its shortages. Water and Humanity aims to address this situation.
Waterboxx in practice. Source: Water and Humanity
New technologies and awareness
One way the project attempts to resolve the issue of awareness, is through the organization of events and workshops, inviting both adults and children. Under the name ‘Valuing Water’, Water and Humanity collaborates with the National Museum of Oman and various schools in challenging children to come up with creative solutions for water issues. Qualies researcher and analyst Wafa al-Maamari states that the most important feature of these workshops is that they engage the younger generation, which then becomes aware of water as a resource, and of how it is used. Subsequently this generation is encouraged to reflect on alternative solutions for water management. ‘We have made progress in this field in the past few years,’ al-Maamari states. ‘Not only is knowledge of water and ecosystems increasing among children, there seems to be more awareness on the ministerial level as well.’
Besides these awareness initiatives, al-Maamari analyses the applicability of several pioneering water technologies in Oman. One of the projects she is working on concerns the planting of trees with the so-called ‘Waterboxx’. This invention by the Dutch entrepreneur Pieter Hoff, which won multiple international prizes, enables people to plant trees using only two percent of the water that is used with conventional planting.[ii] The Waterboxx mimics nature, protects the root, and points the root downward so that it searches for humidity deep in the ground. This prevents the root from staying near the surface, where it would need watering. It has been applied on a small scale in fifteen countries so far and has turned out to be extremely effective in areas in Oman that have succumbed to desertification.[iii]
The use of decentralized desalination units in Oman is another of Al-Maamari’s research topics. This new technology would enable households to produce their own drinking water for five years using solar energy, for an investment of approximately twenty dollars. By adopting this local approach, the salt that is produced is easier to use for other purposes than with the large quantities of the plants. Andersson emphasizes: ‘These technologies are within reach for diffusion and deployment on the ground. A significant number of people could gain a better standard of living with a small investment.’
To realise their ambitious goals, Water and Humanity aims to bring together relevant parties on all possible scales: from international to regional, and from national to local. The focus on collaboration and inclusivity derives from the position of Oman in the region. In the past fifty years, Oman has stayed out of regional conflicts and has assumed a position as mediator in the Middle East. This creates a fertile environment for a project such as Water and Humanity.
Roel Welling studied History (BA) and Arabic language and culture (BA) and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Amsterdam. His main interests include historical narratives and modern history of the Middle East.
[i] Water and Humanity’s website: https://waterandhumanity.com/.
[ii] Pieter Hoff unexpectedly passed away at 67 years old while this article was in preparation. The Omani team collaborated closely with Pieter, who is sorely missed.
[iii] For more information on Hoff’s invention and its applications, visit the website of his company Groasis: www.groasis.com.