U.S. Water News Online
GENEVA -- A Swiss-funded project in Syria is reviving
ancient techniques for supplying water to rural communities.
The restoration of "qanats" -- underground tunnels that tap
groundwater and direct it to towns and agricultural land -- offers a
sustainable way of managing scarce water resources.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) is backing
a project to restore the tunnels in Qara, a town of 20,000 people
about an hour outside the capital, Damascus. The Netherlands and
Germany are also providing financial support.
As in other countries in the Middle East, this irrigation
technique can help solve problems of water scarcity.
"This is a very sustainable system of using groundwater because it
doesn't use mechanical means, and it basically relies on gravity and
on the natural flow of water," said Joshka Wessels, head of the qanat
renovation project in Syria.
There are hundreds of miles of qanats throughout the Middle East
but many have fallen into disuse in recent years.
The technology -- which is believed to have originated in Iran
more than 3,000 years ago -- has been largely abandoned in favor of
wells and the use of motor pumps to extract water.
But pumping is a short-term solution that creates a long-term
problem -- the drying up of groundwater due to over-pumping.
As water sources have dried up, many farmers have left Syria's
rural communities, including Qara.
"If there is not enough water people will have to leave for one of
the bigger cities," said Wessels.
Cities such as Damascus and Aleppo have seen their populations
explode in recent years as people abandon the countryside in search
of a better life.
In Qara a small team works underground to renovate the qanats --
which can be several kilometres long and up to 100 meters deep.
Experts skilled in the ancient technique of qanat maintenance and
renovation have been brought in to help with the work.
"The debris has accumulated for a long time and has turned hard
like cement," Wessels said.
After many years of neglect, debris has fallen into the tunnels,
the walls have collapsed and soil clogs the flow of water.
Repairing the qanats is dangerous, time-consuming and
"It's not just anyone who can go down and work in a tunnel like
this," said Samer Zeynab, a work supervisor in Qara. "Experience,
knowledge and guts are required."
The workers clear away the debris, reinforce the walls and before
water can flow through the tunnels again before being channelled to
farms and orchards.
"This project is really excellent. It couldn't be better than
this. Now the water level is almost twice as high as before," said
Abdel Hakim Zeyn, a farmer from Qara.
"We are just waiting for God's mercy to send us more rain."
Besides the farmers, people from the village are also benefiting
from the renovation project as they collect water from a qanat
reservoir for use in their home.
Wessels says that villagers believe that the water from the qanats
is better for drinking than piped water.
"Even though they have their modern taps they still go to the
qanat outlet to get their water," she said.
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