The Foggara of Adrar

What ancestral groundwater systems and wisdom can teach us, combating today’s challenges

As the scorching sun bathes the Ardrar desert with relentless heat, our team of geophysicists collects data in the middle of the vast, sparkling golden dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. Not a single hint of green or blue to spot in this arid canvas composed of shades of yellow.  Suddenly, from this barren landscape an old man appears. First only a dot on the horizon, but soon close enough to reveal his weathered features, reflecting the wisdom of age. He offers us refreshments, sweet dates and fresh water, from his supplies. We accept gratefully, enjoying a brief break from long day of hard work.

Intrigued to know what brought a handful of scientists to such harsh environment, the old man listens attentively as we explain our pursuit of the groundwater hidden beneath the desert's surface. He smiles, and then starts to tell about a place where water flows in abundance, a hidden sanctuary in the middle of the shifting sands. “I could take you there if you’d like?”, the old man suggests enthusiastically.

"He smiles, and then starts to tell about a place where water flows in abundance, a hidden sanctuary in the middle of the shifting sands. 'I could take you there if you’d like?', the old man suggests enthusiastically."

With our hearts filled with excitement and curiosity, and the mind occupied by this to us unknown lush oasis, we quickly completed our final measurements and packed up our equipment. Few moments later, we climbed into the old man's car, ready to embark on the tour he had promised us.

A maze of mysterious holes and tunnels 

As we crossed the rugged terrain, the old man skillfully navigated the desert paths, each bump and turn adding to the thrill of adventure that filled our spirits. Along the way, we spotted several open pits, neatly placed at regular intervals. Intrigued by these honeycomb-like structures, we couldn't resist asking the old man about their purpose. "They're air shafts for the Foggara," he explains, eyes sparkling with knowing amusement as he senses our curiosity. A curiosity that encouraged the old man to weave a tale that transcends time. He spoke of a time long ago when lush wetlands stretched far and wide, teeming with diverse flora and fauna. However, incessant droughts soon engulfed the land, swallowing rivers, drying up lakes and reducing fertile soils to dust. When we asked why some people chose to endure such harsh conditions, he explained that their deep love of the land bound them to their ancestral home.

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An airshaft
One of countless aishafts

Centuries of survival struggle

"In their survival struggle, the inhabitants engaged in a remarkable journey to secure their water supply”, the man continues. He describes how they traced rivers up to the Tadmeit plateau to the east, widening their beds to increase the flow of water - a short-lived solution due to overexploitation. However, not discouraged, they turned to a more lasting approach: digging tunnels in the hard sandstones using their bare hands. He pointed out the pits we had seen earlier, explaining their role as a source of air and light for those digging the intricate tunnels that meander under the surface of the desert.

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Small stream, called 'Saquia', meandering the town, finding their way to the farmers
Small stream, called 'Saquia', meandering the town, finding their way to the farmers

Continuing his fascinating tale, the old man reveals the ingenious hydrological principles behind the Foggara's water supply. In these hidden tunnels, he explains, flows water from a shallow Albian aquifer. By taking advantage of the terrain's topography, the constructers ensured a steady flow of water through the tunnels over long distances in the middle of the desert. An additional advantage such tunnels provide, over for example superficial canals or streams, is that they protect the water from the burning sun and the effects of evapotranspiration.

“He speaks of the historical origins of the foggara systems, crediting their first development in the 11th and 12th century”

He speaks of the historical origins of the foggara systems, crediting their first development to El Malik El Mansour Ben Youcef Tafsit El Korichi in the 11th and 12th century. According to researchers, the first foggara was dug at Tamantit, 15 kilometers from Adrar. Others believe, it is the work of Muslim converts, former Buddhists from the Iranian plateau who were expelled from their village of El Kouine during the Egyptian regency, who came to settle in Tamentit after its foundation in the 7th century. Later, foggara systems were developed in the Touat and Gourara regions by Arab-Berber tribes such as the Zenati.

An emerging oasis

As the car made its way over the rugged terrain, a pulsing sense of anticipation filled the air, reinforced by the distant vision of a thriving oasis. It emerged as a tangible symbol of the life-giving water we were looking for. After a brief pause and a moment of shared wonder, we stepped out of the vehicle, greeted by the old man who led us into the vibrant oasis garden.

The soothing sound of flowing water surrounds our senses as we follow the old man's footsteps further into the heart of the oasis. In the middle of the lush greenery, we discover a triangular basin featuring a comb-like structure at its edge, allowing the water to cascade gracefully through its interstices. "This is the Kasria," explains the old man, "the initial station where the water is gathered after its long journey through the tunnel."

Intrigued by the design, I asked about the different widths of the openings. "Ah, that's where the brilliance of these structures lies," he remarked, with a smile on his face that hinted at the sophistication hidden in these apparently simple constructions.

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The 'Kasria', the initial station where water is gathered after its long journey through the tunnel
The 'Kasria', the initial station where water is gathered after its long journey through the tunnel

Our curiosity grew as we were guided deeper into the oasis, eventually arriving at a gathering of five men engaged in the ceremonial preparation of tea. Respectfully, they all stood up to greet us. After introductions, we sat down together, exchanging stories over steaming cups of tea in the serene atmosphere of the oasis.

“He then asked one of the men gathered nearby to bring something back. The man returned with a fascinating artifact that piqued our curiosity.”

The old man continues his story after a sip of hot, bitter tea. He explained that while the foggara is technically the property of its constructor, a task of such monumental dimensions required a collective effort. It is often carried out by a group of individuals, whether or not they belonged to the same family. Each owner's water share was meticulously calculated according to their contribution to the construction and maintenance of the foggara. He then asked one of the men gathered nearby to bring something back. The man returned with a fascinating artifact that piqued our curiosity.

Rich history of water management

He mentioned a time when water shares were distributed through a time-based scheme. Each owner had access to water for a fixed period of time, before it was redirected to the next owner. This complex system was overseen by individuals known for their knowledge of celestial observation - they meticulously tracked the position of the stars and sun to measure time with exceptional precision. However, the Zenati tribe introduced an innovative technique allowing owners to irrigate their gardens simultaneously.

The old man's eyes sparkled with pride as he proudly displayed the rectangular piece of metal brought by his companion. The surface of the copper plate was decorated with intricate Tifinagh (a Berber script) engravings and precise circular openings of varying diameters, reflecting exquisite craftsmanship and ingenious design.

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The local man holding up 'El Abbara', which is believed to be the first flowmeter that has ever existed | El abbara |  Zoubida Nemer
The local man holding up 'El Abbara', which is believed to be the first flowmeter that has ever existed

“This is believed to be the first flowmeter that has ever existed”, said the old man, his voice ringing with reverence and anticipation as he introduced us to this antique artifact. “We call it ‘El Abbara’, our ancient measure of water quantities”. He explains that each circular opening on the plate represents a unit called ‘Habba’, equivalent to 24 karat. “Karat, as in gold?” I asked. The old man's nod confirmed the symbolic meaning attributed to water - a precious and vital resource comparable to the most precious of metals.

“'Karat, as in gold?' I asked. The old man's nod confirmed the symbolic meaning attributed to water - a precious and vital resource comparable to the most precious of metals.”

"Who oversees distribution?" we inquired. "Three men are charged with this essential responsibility," began the old man, “They are chosen for their impeccable ethics and honesty”. He then detailed their respective roles: the measurer (Kiyal Lma), responsible for monitoring water levels and shaping the construction of the distribution pond; the accountant (El Hassab), in charge of performing complex calculations to determine each owner's share; and the scribe (Saheb el Djrida), entrusted with documenting and reporting on the distribution process.

Adapting to change

Whenever a new foggara was built, or changes in flow occurred due to seasonal variations or changes in ownership, the three designated men, together with the foggara owners, would gather near the Kasria - the heart of the distribution system and our first stop when we entered the oasis. The measurer's first task is to assess the level and flow of incoming water through the main channel called ‘Aghesrou’. The accountant, on the other hand, performs complex calculations, taking into account the water level, each owner's contribution and agreed shares to determine their respective water rights.

“The culmination of this meticulous process [of water distribution] is reached when the measurer, equipped with El Abbara, adjusts the width of the Kasria openings for each owner”

The culmination of this meticulous process is reached when the measurer, equipped with El Abbara, adjusts the width of the Kasria openings for each owner, thus shaping the final form of the foggara distribution system. The water then flows through an open channel called the Saguia (sagya) until reaching the gardens or a storage reservoir.

Once the new distribution is complete and the shares allocated, the scribe records the assigned shares on two small slabs of mud - one given to the owners of the foggara and the other kept by the mosque's imam. "Why call in the imam?" we asked, puzzled by this additional step. He explained that this practice guaranteed the presence of a neutral mediator in the event of a dispute, helping to adjust and settle differences while maintaining peace and harmony within the community.

'Thiwiza’: Celebrating heritage

As we enjoy the warmth of our third or fourth cup of tea, the old man continues: "Although the Foggara is a private property," he points out, "it plays an essential role in the daily lives of all the inhabitants". He describes a long-awaited tradition, the Thiwiza, an annual festival filled with history and community spirit. Generations come together in the open space of the town. The wise words of elders echo ancestral wisdom, passing on to younger generations lessons in stewardship and harmony with nature. The laughter blends with shared stories, building a sense of unity and resilience through communal meals and rhythmic dances that resonate in the desert night.

“United by a common goal, community members commit to a collective effort to clean and maintain the Foggara system, ensuring the sustainability of their shared heritage”

Thiwiza symbolizes the collective commitment to preserving the Foggara legacy. As festivities gradually fade, a new day paves the way for a different kind of work. United by a common goal, community members commit to a collective effort to clean and maintain the Foggara system, ensuring the sustainability of their shared heritage.

Old systems to solve new water challenges?

The journey back to the hotel took place in contemplative silence, each of us immersed in our own thoughts as we processed the profound experiences of the day. The unexpected encounter with the old man and the rich history and tradition he shared left an unforgettable mark on our minds and hearts.

On the desert roads, the image of our ancestors working tirelessly to dig tunnels with their bare hands in such hard conditions remained in our memories. It was a humbling reminder of human resilience and ingenuity in the face of adversity, a testament to the enduring spirit that has shaped civilisations in these arid lands for centuries.

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Pulling up the  buckets from one of the airshafts visible at the surface
Pulling up the buckets from one of the airshafts visible at the surface

For me, what resonated most deeply was the meticulous system of water distribution implemented by the Foggara community. It was a marvel of fairness and efficiency, rooted in merit yet designed to avoid conflict and foster a sense of belonging and responsibility among its members. The careful calculations, equitable shares based on contribution, and safeguards against disputes showcased a model that transcended time — a model we could learn from in our modern-day challenges.

The looming specter of water scarcity and potential conflicts over decreasing resources weighed heavily on my mind. I couldn't shake off the unsettling thought of global unrest fueled by the scarcity of water. It was a stark contrast to the harmony and cooperation we witnessed among the desert dwellers, united in their shared commitment to sustainably manage their water sources.

As we reached the hotel and prepared for the mission ahead, I couldn't help but ponder: How can we, in our modern world, draw lessons from our ancestors to navigate the challenges of water scarcity and ensure a sustainable future for all? The wisdom embedded in ancient traditions and practices, the spirit of cooperation and equitable distribution, held answers that resonated with urgency in the face of contemporary dilemmas.

The day's revelations sparked in me a desire to explore solutions that honor the heritage of the past while opening the way to a more sustainable and peaceful coexistence with our planet and its precious resources. ∎

From the author

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Zoubida Nemer
Author: Algeria Correspondent Zoubida Nemer

"Special thanks to Dr. Youcef Boutadara for his unwavering support in answering my countless questions and guiding me through the fascinating world of the foggaras of Adrar. His expertise and dedication have been instrumental in enhancing my understanding.

Additionally, I would like to extend my appreciation to the Observatory of the Foggaras of Adrar for their passionate efforts and relentless work in safeguarding one of Algeria's most exquisite heritages."

Zoubida Nemer

Ancient groundwater systems

Valuing ancient water cultures

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Ancient Groundwater Systems [Illustration: Stefan Siepman]
Ancient Groundwater Systems [Illustration: Stefan Siepman]