Legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad once visited the huge, ancient oasis of al-Hasa in what is now the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Hungry and weary, he asked a farmer if he could have a few dates and rest a while. The farmer apologized for his puny, withered dates: "There is almost no water here. This is all I can give you." The Prophet ate the dates and as he took leave he said: "God bless the water of al-Hasa." And for centuries thereafter the oasis has had a plentiful supply.
In al-Hasa, there is still plenty of water, but for the last few decades, because of its marginal quality, much of it has gone to waste. The oasis, now home to more than 160,000 people, is in fact under siege. Relentless desert winds have been blasting sand into cultivated areas, driving people out, blocking ancient drainage channels, silting in more than 100 fresh-water springs and creating salty swamps where nothing will grow. To make matters worse, the once-abundant irrigation water from the springs has been used and re-used, as farmers moved it along from field to field. With even application the crop-killing salinity shot up, at such an alarming rate that oasis farmers, in their special terminology for irrigation matters, began to call it the "twice-used" water.
The oasis of al-Hasa, largest in the kingdom, is actually an L-shaped collection of many palm-surrounded villages, plus three sizable towns, located about 40 miles west of the Arabian Gulf. Though nowadays a key stop on the Dammam-Riyadh railway and tied with the rest of the country by good roads, al-Hasa has been relatively isolated by its inland setting, which tended to preserve in the oasis a flavor out of Arabia's distant past.
Hofuf, principal community of al-Hasa and former provincial capital, is the site of a traditional Thursday-morning camel and sheep market, with all its dusty, noisy excitement, conducted as it probably has been for centuries. Nearby the Bedouin families who have brought their herds to town can buy hand-loomed tent cloth, poles, tent pegs, and all the other accoutrements required for full-time desert living. In the colorful, colonnaded bazaar, tea-sipping merchants hunker in their cubicle stalls selling multi-hued dress material, pungent spices, iron and brass utensils for the Arab coffee-making ceremony, and hand-wrought cutlery.
The commercial bustle on Hofuf's Suq ai-Khamis Street represents, of course, only a small part of the occupational activity of al-Hasa as a whole. Long known for the quality of its dates, once its leading crop, the oasis is and always has been predominantly agricultural. In recent times, instructed and encouraged by agriculturists of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), al-Hasa farmers began switching to a wide range of vegetables and grains. In this essentially rainless region, water for the crops must, come from artesian wells and natural springs, and be directed to the fields through sluices. Each farmer with access to a source of water has a formal agreement with the owner of the supply giving him certain days and hours, depending on the size of his acreage and type of crop being grown, when he can use the water for irrigating his land. Soon the variety, quantity and growing seasons of farmers' yields all expanded, with much acreage producing several crops a year.
In the midst of such apparent fertility it is understandable why the first signs of blight went largely ignored. Eventually though, as the proud date palms began to droop, broad stretches of alfalfa paled and rich green vegetable gardens yellowed, died and disappeared under waves of sand, thoughtful men began to act. The results are worth recounting.
Once the gravity of the problem was realized (Aramco World May-June, 1965) the Saudi Arab government, working closely with experts from Aramco and adopting dune control techniques then being perfected by the Standard Oil Company (N.J.), was able to introduce a forestry program that slowed, then halted, the encroaching dunes.
As a second step, Saudi Arabia in 1962 invited the Swiss consulting engineering firm of Wakuti A.G. to study the problem further. Wakuti did, and recommended construction of surface and underground drainage channels leading into huge evaporation lakes to solve the drainage problem. With proper drainage, a complete new irrigation system for the distribution of water to all the farms became -possible. The fresh water would flow into a field when needed, run through the field and come out into a drainage channel at the other end. Through a maze of channels the now slightly saline water would end up in an evaporation lake some distance away. This system, plus extensive leaching (washing away the salt with heavy quantities of fresh water), increased use of proper fertilizers and a more judicious use of water generally, engineers said, would mean that al-Hasa could bloom again.
It was a tall order: 20,000 hectares—about 50,000 acres—rather than the present 8,000—about 20,000 acres—were to be irrigated. It would require building 900 miles of concrete irrigation canals, 900 miles of drainage ditches, nearly 1,000 miles of new agricultural roads. It also meant construction of a concrete-fabricating factory to manufacture concrete sections for the canals.
The factory alone, to be supplied by a huge, already-existing cement plant nearby, was an impressive undertaking. Although it was to function for only five years, while the canal system was being installed, it was nonetheless a fully-equipped, highly automated plant, able to turn out 250 assorted concrete products, the most important of which are the 20-foot-long, V-shaped and U-shaped reinforced concrete canal sections, some of which run to 20 tons apiece.
Saudi Arabia was not long in accepting the recommendations nor in awarding the costly ($51 million) contract to Philipp Holzmann A. G., the West German construction company. Overnight the quiet Biblical rhythms of al-Hasa village life shattered as a fleet of bright yellow bulldozers, trucks, loaders, cranes and brisk little Volkswagens—250 in all—thundered into the oasis.
Along with the equipment came 155 German construction engineers and technicians, one of whose first tasks was to train, in some cases from scratch, the local Saudi Arabs they would need to handle the big machines. How well they succeeded can be clearly measured, says Heinrich Hopp, Holzmann's manager for Saudi Arabia, by their progress in laying canals. "In the beginning it took more than an hour to put down a length of concrete for a canal. Now it takes 10 to 15 minutes for a 20-ton piece."
The equipment operators make up only a small part of the work force. Altogether there are 2,200 Saudis, most trained on the spot by Holzmann's German employes, all Construction engineer inspects section of a main canal by car. of whom work from the break of the desert dawn to dusk, when the machinery stops, the bulldozers become silent and the ancient oasis regains some trace of its mysterious, drowsy peace.
As it spread through the oasis complex, the great irrigation system came to resemble a giant, weirdly-shaped concrete-gray spider web spun over a green and yellowish carpet. The big threads in the web are the main canals; the small ones are the narrow sub-canals that reach the farmer's fields; and three elevated reservoirs from which the canals stretch out through the trees look for all the world like knots holding the web together.
On the ground one loses track of the plan and the system. I spent a whole week driving around the project, from the concrete factory that spews out 250 tons of concrete parts a day, to the bewildering network of canals, ditches, evaporation lakes, and the farms and villages. I never knew where I was except that in the vicinity of the factory the dust cloud was dustier than anywhere else.
No one else seemed to know either, even Mr. Hopp. "Don't feel bad," he said. "I have been here for six months and I haven't seen it all myself."
One difficulty that has not been overcome, Mr. Hopp said, is the skepticism of the al-Hasa farmers. "Farmers here, as everywhere," he said, "are conservative by nature, and since there has been a certain amount of disruption of their old canals and roads, there have been complaints. We try to take care of them immediately, but He shrugged.
The Saudi farmers, when asked their opinion, made me think of the notoriously taciturn New England farmers. Said one: "We haven't seen the water yet, so it's too early to tell." Another: "We are happy about the drainage because we were almost swimming in the fields here." Then he scratched his head and added thoughtfully: "But we haven't seen the fresh water yet."
While the Holzmann people attempt to make adjustments on the spot, the Saudi Arab government itself has taken direct steps to ease the transition. Through the Directorate General of Agricultural Affairs in the Eastern Province it has already paid out compensation amounting to 7.5 million Saudi riyals (almost $1.7 million) to owners of the lands affected by the al-Hasa Drainage and Irrigation Project.
Out of 60 major springs in the oasis, 30 are being tapped for the irrigation project—at the rate of about 237,800 gallons per minute. Since that is quite a lot of water, I asked Wakuti's chief engineer, Hans W. Bahr, who supervises the Holzmann performance, where it all comes from. "We don't know very much about the origin of the water," Mr. Bahr said. "Some of it is very old 'fossil water,' or 'virgin water,' which was trapped here. The rest is from rain in western Saudi Arabia, as well as local precipitation. The Arabian Peninsula slopes from west to east and some of the water finds its way from the higher regions in the west to the Eastern Province. Since it all comes out mixed together, it is hard to tell how much is rainwater and how much is fossil water." Added Mr. Bahr: "Radioactive carbon tests (C14) have ascertained that some of the water is 17,000 years old."
From time immemorial the waters of al-Hasa have nourished the palms, which in turn provided people with their main staple—dates. In comparatively recent times al-Hasa farmers have been taught to diversify their crops, resulting in a much more varied diet for local inhabitants. New grains, fruits and a wide range of vegetables are being grown, while at the same time the traditional fare of dates is slowly passing out of style. As one Saudi farmer told me, "If water comes, we may cut some of the old dead palm trees and plant vegetables because not many people are eating dates any more."
To cope with the changes in approach and scale that the enormous increase in acreage (150 percent more arable land) is sure to bring, and the difficulties sure to follow when crop changes are attempted, the Saudi government has also brought in German agricultural experts to work with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Agriculture and Water. Complete reports on their findings are not due for another two or three years, but one early recommendation has already crystallized: there shoukt be more concentration on alfalfa and animals. The oasis soil can produce five tons of green alfalfa per acre each and every month, which at the rate of 33 pounds a day would feed a lot of cattle. (German farmers, in comparison, can grow about one fourth as much, as they harvest only three or four times a year.) And since one of the most significant items still remaining on the list of Saudi food imports is animals, this proposal makes good economic sense.
Such developments may not be too far in the future. Work at al-Hasa is already more than 80 percent complete and the water is pouring through many of the canals and sub-canals right now, restoring to a blighted soil the legendary blessing of a grateful Prophet.
Tor Eigeland, a free-lance photojournalist now based in Spain, spent five years in the Middle East contributing to Aramco World and such publications as National Geographic, Time and Newsweek.