Indigenous knowledge and water harvesting

    Farmer and his children harvest olives in the Aleppo Province    

During the learning event at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), indigenous water harvesting systems in rainfed areas were observed in the Syrian badia and the Aleppo plains, reports Anita Joshi.

Indigenous knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge (for example know-how), practices and manifestations maintained and developed by people with long histories of interaction with their natural environment. It forms the basis for local-level decision-making, especially for the poor, and provides problem-solving strategies for communities (World Bank, 1998).

Water harvesting is based on the principle of depriving (naturally or artificially) part of the land of its share of rain and adding it to another part. Dry areas in Syria are rich in traditional ancient water harvesting systems. Many of the water structures date back to the al-‘Abbasiyun Islamic Abbasid Caliphate era (A.D. 750 -1258). Water harvesting structures are still visible today and these techniques are also being re-created; several sites were visible during the field visits.








Cotton plant






Contour ridges:
These are small earthen ridges, 15 to 20 cm high, with an upslope furrow which accommodates run-off from a catchment strip between the ridges. The catchment strip is usually uncultivated; however, the whole area may be cultivated where contour ridging is used to control erosion rather than to harvest water. Contour ridges are one of the most important techniques for supporting new plantations and regeneration of forage, grasses and hardy trees on mild to steep slopes in the badia.  

Small basins:
Often called negari, these small run-off basins are rectangular or diamond-shaped and are surrounded by small earth bunds with an infiltration pit in the lowest corner of each. Run-off is collected from within the basin and stored in the infiltration pit. This technique is appropriate for planting small-scale trees in any area which has a moisture deficit. Besides harvesting water for the trees, it simultaneously conserves soil.

Semi-circular bunds:
These are earth embankments in the shape of a semi-circle with the tips of the bunds on the contour. Semi-circular bunds, of varying dimensions, are used mainly for rangeland rehabilitation or fodder production. This technique is also useful for growing trees and shrubs and has been used in some cases for growing crops.

In the Orontes river in Hama, there was an interesting water harvesting technique called the na'urah, which is used to lift and convey water from rivers and wells.  The wheel is 20 metres in diameter and water is channeled into a sluice so that its flow turns the wheel around. Wooden boxes (between 50 and 120) attached to the wheel raise the water from the sluice and discharge it into an artificial channel at the summit of the wheel's rotation. The water is then led by gravity along a series of aqueduct channels to be distributed to domestic or agricultural users in Hama. Access to the flow was regulated at carefully planned times so that the water could be shared. It is believed that na'urahs date back to the fourth century A.D. Today, about ten na'urahs are used for irrigation along the Orontes River.