ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 57, May/June 2005
Water efficiency II: Rural areas and agriculture

What is the future for ancient water tunnels in the Middle East?

by Joshka Wessels

"Seeing the potential of qanats and Syria in general (...) it is my sincere hope that conditions in Syria will remain stable and that the renovated qanats might stand a chance to survive another 1,500 years."


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On a very warm spring evening in England, I sat down to write this short paper for the Arid Lands Newsletter. Suddenly the skies opened up; heavy rains and even hailstones poured down. Enough rain fell in one evening to irrigate our complete kitchen garden. Ironically, I was going to write something about water shortages and ancient irrigation technology. 

Very kindly I have been asked to write something about my experience in Syria, where I have been renovating ancient water tunnels called "qanats."  Qanats are man-made subterranean tunnels that lead groundwater to the surface for irrigation in some of the driest parts of our planet. Originally developed in Iran more than 3000 years ago, these systems are now found throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, China and even as far away as South America and Japan.

Since it is my dream that these wonderful phenomena of irrigation technology might largely be revived at some point in time, I take every opportunity to publicize my experience in Syria. But immediately the question arises: can a centuries-old system of water supply still be meaningful today in a Middle East where post-9/11 concerns determine the political agenda, population sizes have grown exponentially, water deficits have reached crisis proportions and the socio-economic situation remains unstable? I would like to believe it can; the next paragraphs will explore whether I am just too idealistic at heart.

From 1997 until 2002 I lived in Aleppo, Syria, where I worked as an associate professional officer with the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA). For the main part of those five years, I busied myself with applied anthropological research on desert communities that still use qanats in their daily lives.  It started in 1999 when I stumbled upon a small village in northern Syria that still made use of an ancient qanat as its only water supply.

thumbnail link to schematic of qanat design
Link to Figure 1, ~14K

Qanats are subterranean tunnels that tap the groundwater at a certain elevation and lead the water, based on gravity, to lower-lying human settlements and agricultural lands.  These tunnels are intersected at regular intervals with hand-dug airshafts that provide oxygen for the diggers and cleaners. Qanats played a tremendously important role in the spread of irrigated agriculture and the establishment of sophisticated settlements in dry areas.

The renovation in Shallalah Saghirah

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The village that I found was called Shallalah Saghirah and was built on an old Byzantine settlement. In 1999 it consisted of a close-knit family community of 122 people. This was an ideal location for anthropological research.  I soon had made contact with the community and in 2000 settled myself in their village to study the use of this ancient qanat. A whole new world opened up to me.

The villagers were so kind as to let me enter into their daily lives and soon enough I was considered as part of the family. Around 25 households live in the village. All households are related and most marriages are between cousins, as is often traditional in Middle Eastern society. At that time, the village did not have electricity and there was public transport only on request. The Syrian land reform that started in 1958 largely passed this small settlement by, not changing much in reality. The village is virtually too small to exist in the demographic statistics and is simply forgotten on the map. But it has its own autonomous water supply, the qanat.

Thumbnail link to Wessels figure 2
Link to Figure 2, ~30K

The Shallalah Saghirah qanat is basically a tunnel 600 meters (~0.37 mi) long that runs at a slight upward angle underneath the dry valley until it reaches the groundwater table. The villagers use qanat water to irrigate a community garden ("bustan") to grow fruit trees, barley in winter and food crops such as onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables for additional nutrition of the households in summer. Besides the irrigation of the garden, elderly people in the village make use of the qanat water to irrigate small-scale private plots for growing vegetables and herbs.

In my research, I found that young men in the village were not interested in maintaining the qanat; they preferred to earn their income from urban migration work rather than from unreliable and unsustainable farming. This was the first sign that should perhaps have woken me up from my dream of ever seeing the full use of the qanat again. But there was light at the end of the tunnel: after a period of researching the use of the qanat, the villagers asked if our team could assist them in renovating it. 

Thumbnail link to Wessels Fig. 3
Link to Figure 3, ~27K

So started the adventure that led me to gain expertise in qanat renovation. Soon we found funding to help the villagers and over a strenuous three-month period in the summer, we managed with 16 villagers to clean and repair the tunnel. The test came after the next rainy season, in November. The amount of water that flowed from the qanat was indeed more than had ever been experienced by the young men of the village. For me, it was proof that renovating qanats in the Syrian desert was in fact a real possibility.

The renovation in Dmeir

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After we had successfully renovated the qanat in Shallalah Saghirah, we traveled around Syria to find more of these qanat sites. With the help of data from a 1994 study carried out by Dale Lightfoot of Oklahoma State University (1), we found many other sites and chose three to look into more closely.

One site in particular was Dmeir, located 42 km (~26 mi) from the capital, Damascus, on the Damascus-Baghdad road: a main traffic hub where ancient travelers' tales led to the excavation and discovery of a famous Roman  temple. The temple of Dmeir is located in the center of the modern town and dates back to 245 CE.  Thus, it was constructed during the reign of the Roman emperor Philip the Arab, who was born in the Hauran region, in modern-day southern Syria. The temple bears obvious signs of water channeling that make us believe that qanats were used to deliver water to the temple. Further east, 5 km (~3 mi) along the road towards Palmyra, the remains of a 2nd century Roman military camp can be found. There is a clear relationship between the use of the qanats and the military camp, given the location of the gardens that were irrigated by the qanats.

Present-day Dmeir is a thriving border town where Bedouins flock to sell their stock and purchase goods from urban areas like Damascus. The town has four qanats, of which three (named Mukabrat, Drasia and Maitaroun) are flowing. The fourth qanat was abandoned many years ago.

The town has around 30,000 permanent inhabitants, of whom 7200 have a share in the qanat water. There are approximately 5000 "strangers" settled in Dmeir; these are pastoralists conducting seasonal migration with livestock. Since the 1980s, the town center has had paved roads and there has been full electricity supply and piped governmental water supply to the households. Dmeir has eight schools for all levels of pre-college education and at least two mosques. The population is Sunni Muslim, and there are several religious shaykhs active in the town. The population can partly be divided into different tribal factions that reflect a long-gone past. With the coming of newcomers since 1970, this link with the past has become insignificant in many circumstances. For qanat organization, however, the family name is still very important.

The economic life in Dmeir is dominated by the employment of many inhabitants at the nearby National Military Airport. The main income sources are thus government employment, state pensions, and work in Damascus or abroad. Agriculture and sheepbreeding are minor sources of income, with the  main agricultural produce coming from olive trees and cereal grains.

After the initial study in Dmeir, we determined that the town was a good candidate for qanat renovation. The Syrian Ministry of Irrigation had already undertaken renovation work for the Mukabrat qanat; we decided to help out with the others. The villagers themselves had organized most of the work, so our role was mainly to facilitate the process financially. The work of renovating the Dmeir qanats was finished in the spring of 2001. It was beginning to look as if qanat renovation was indeed feasible at several places in Syria.

Thumbnail link to Fig. 4
Link to Figure 4, ~30K

Following our work in Dmeir, I went back to the first village of Shallalah Saghirah to find that the qanat was still working but the people had not been doing maintenance work. This made me wonder whether the renovation was sustainable. But my key informant ensured me he was looking after the tunnel regularly, and indeed, it was still producing a lot of water. Reassured by the situation, I set out for the next renovation.

The renovation in Qara

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The third and last renovation that we undertook in Syria was in Qara, situated 100 km (~62 mi) north of Damascus, west of the Damascus-Aleppo road. The climate in Qara is dry with rather cool winters, instances of snowfall, and hot summers. The average elevation of the area is more than 1,300 m (~4,265 ft). Qara's natural vegetation is sparse and consists of shrubs and other drought tolerant plants. The town has 19,000 permanent households; 950 extended households have irrigation rights in the qanat systems. The town has 10 schools for primary and secondary education. Since 1990, it has had a main asphalt road, electricity and a piped water supply.

The main income sources in Qara are migration/trade work, government employment and agriculture. The main products of irrigated agriculture are apricot trees and cereal grains. In terms of rainfed agriculture, the community owns more than four million cherry trees on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.

The community is mainly Muslim but there is a significant Christian minority, representing 10% of the population. In the 19th century, 90% of the community was Christian but starting from the beginning of the 20th century many of these families emigrated. Qara is best known for the wall drawings in the church of Mar Sarkis. Other 12th century wall paintings have been discovered in the monastery of Deir Mar Yaqoub. This monastery also plays a major role in one of the qanat systems in Qara.

The qanats are located both within and outside the town of Qara. There are 10 main qanats, of which six are flowing. One qanat, flowing within the town, was being renovated with government support at the time of our fieldwork. We focused on investigating those qanats situated west of the urban area, at the feet of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains: Ain el Taibeh, Ain el Qraizah, Ain el Baidah, Ain el Qaz and Ain el Qutneh. We discovered another flowing qanat, Ain el Atah, during the survey, but were not able to investigate it thoroughly. Ain el Qutneh appeared to have dried up in 2001.

The Byzantine monastery of Deir Mar Yaqoub was renovated in 1997, and since 2000 a small group of nuns has been living there. This monastic community is active in the renovation of icons and wall paintings. The monastery has several rooms that can be used by visitors for various activities and spiritual retreats and the community plans to host at least 35 visitors in these premises in peak times. Initially, the community envisioned using the water supply of Ain El Taibeh for their garden and domestic water supply. However Ain El Taibeh dried up in January 2002, so it was feared that this plan might not be realized.

The monastery was a key player in mobilizing the Qara community to renovate the qanat of Ain el Taibeh. Involved in the renovation work were five specialist workers from nearby Maaloula and three builders from a town called Nebk. The head of the monastery took care of the overall project coordination. In April 2004 the final report of the renovation indicated that a good amount of extra water was flowing out of the qanat.


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After three rather successful qanat renovations in Syria, one would say that qanats represent a new avenue to help solve part of the critical water shortages in the Middle East. At least in these three sites in Syria, the local communities have gained more water. But the last time I went back to Shallalah Saghirah in November 2003, things did not look quite so bright. The qanat in the village was still flowing but the villagers had not expressed much interest in maintaining it; their main priority now was awaiting the provision of electricity to the village. Some of the villagers told me that when electricity came, they would be able to pump groundwater. My heart sank…pumping groundwater would destroy the qanat! But it is natural for people to want a better life, and who am I to say that they can't have electricity? I have not been back since the introduction of electricity in 2004, but I am anxious to see what has happened to our first renovated qanat.

The Dmeir qanat was always strong and the old farmers will do their best to keep it alive. The problem lies with the young men, who struggle to survive economically in the changing world. For example, to marry in Syria nowadays, young men must amass quite a lot of money. Not only must they pay for the complete wedding, the bride's jewelry and the dowry; they are also obliged to provide a complete new house and wardrobe if they are to wed a girl of good family. This is a well-known social problem amongst young people in the Syrian countryside.

To cope, the men usually work in construction in Lebanon, but with the political situation now, this is becoming increasingly difficult. Furthermore, traveling to Iraq for such work is now too dangerous. So, most young men resort to moving to the urban areas such as Damascus, leaving farming altogether. This trend might prove fatal for qanats, unless it is counteracted by an increase of eco-tourism in Syria, which would provide enough revenue to make qanat renovation financially attractive. But that is not likely to happen soon, as long as Syria remains regarded as a "dangerous country" for some tourists.

The Qara qanat might stand a chance in that the nuns will take care of it in order to live the life they want. But they are an exception to the rule. I must admit, I remain optimistic and still idealistic. Seeing the potential of qanats and Syria in general, I can't accept the idea that these systems will vanish completely. But with the current socio-economic and political situation the time in the Middle East is not yet ripe for progressive thinking on how to re-use such an ancient sustainable technology. So my main question now is, will the renovated Syrian qanats survive until that time comes? The outcome is far from certain, but it is my sincere hope that conditions in Syria will remain stable and that the renovated qanats might stand a chance to survive another 1,500 years.

During the qanat renovations, Joshka did her own film work. Several films have been produced about the Syrian qanat renovations; one of them, “Tunnel Vision” has been screened in the BBC World TVE Earth Report Series. The film won a recommendation at the RAI Anthropological Filmfestival 2003 and the Skoda General Partner Award at EKOFILM 2004. Please visit for more information.


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(1) A version of this study, titled Syrian Qanat Romani, is available online at (back to text)

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Author information

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Joshka Wessels is an anthropologist and filmmaker. She currently works as part-time senior lecturer at the Centre for International Development and Training (CIDT) at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. She can be reached for comment at

Additional web resources

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Renovation of qanats in Syria, by J. Wessels and R.J.A. Hoogeveen
This 25-page PDF file (90 KB), published by the United Nations University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health, provides a more detailed and technical account of the pilot qanat renovation conducted in Shallalah Saghirah by Joshka Wessels and her ICARDA colleagues.

From the web site, a very interesting and detailed document providing information on the history, construction, and present-day uses of qanats around the world.

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