Living Between Desert and Development in Oman
Living Between Desert and Development in Oman

Living Between Desert and Development in Oman

March 6, 2014, Royal Geographical Society, London, U.K.


In the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje Lecture Theatre, three speakers with backgrounds in conservation biology and water and environmental management discussed how conservation practices can best thrive in a country where natural landscapes contend with continuing development.

“Oman breaks the stereotypes many have in mind when they think of the Middle East," said Earthwatch’s Executive Vice President for Middle East and India Nigel Winser. “The ecosystems of Oman are more than just a desert. Protecting ecosystems is a challenge that the sultan recognizes. His understanding of and support for conservation is crucial.”

The chairman for the evening was Dr. Saif al Shaqsi, CEO of the National Field Research Center for Environmental Conservation, Earthwatch’s partner organization in Oman.


Watch Living Between Desert and Development in Oman, which tackles the topic of traditional Omani conservation practices contending with developmental change, and explores how field science can affect the outcome.

Flourishing Environmental Awareness

The first speaker, Dr. Salim Hamood Salim Al-Rawahy, chairman of Alawael Overseas Company in the Sultanate of Oman, detailed the potential conflict to conservation presented by development in the country. He said that Oman is experiencing a flourishing environmental awareness, thanks to factors such as “the wise vision of his majesty and various royal directives, education, and awareness, and research and field studies.”

This awareness, he said, is important in a country where issues include overgrazing by animals, which increases desertification in biodiversity hotspots, and pollution.

Salim stresses that more environmental field research is needed, noting the importance of Earthwatch in providing productive results, and gave examples of where conservation is working well in Oman, such as in mangrove conservation. Due to development in Oman, many mangrove ecosystems are threatened, however in the past few years, said Salim, there has been a lot of effort to replant these mangroves by private sectors, local people, and schools, and now the plants are recovering well.

A Great Responsibility

The second speaker, Steve Ross—a conservation biologist and research associate at the University of Bristol—introduced the tahr, a small endangered mountain goat and the subject of his own studies. Like the blue whale and snow leopard, the tahr will experience a high risk of extinction in the near future.

“As well as the privilege of having an endemic species,” said Steve, “Oman also holds the responsibility of conserving these species.”

Steve illustrated the distribution of tahr in Oman by showing data collected through tracking activities, which had suggested the tahr is not a territorial species.

Steve said that the photos and new information that they are collecting are important for educational materials. His team hopes to raise awareness of the species and Oman’s environment among school children, and provide local examples that teachers can use in school curriculum.

An Important Gift

“Just as Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” said the final speaker, “Oman is the gift of the Aflaj.”

Abdullah Al-Ghafri is the director of the Aflaj Research Unit and assistant dean for Training of College of Arts and Science in the University of Nizwa, Oman.

He spoke about the falaj, a traditional canal system (aflaj is the plural term) that provides water for a community of farmers for domestic and agricultural use—and is used variously for drinking water, mosques, baths, washing, date palms and trees, and seasonal crops.

Falaj systems have been running for hundreds of years, but have been subjected to human interference such as conflict, and environmental disturbances such as floods. However some aflaj are more than 2500 years old. By sustaining aflaj, Abdullah said, we can sustain life.

 “The challenge,” said Abdullah, “is how we can take aflaj to the future, keeping them healthy and traditional.”

“Aflaj of Oman have a rich experience in securing water for communities for hundreds of years, and contain many lessons for learning and adapting to water conservation management.”

“Oman,” he concluded, “is the gift of Aflaj.”

A Delicate Balance

Nigel Winser closed the evening, thanking the speakers and guests.

“It’s about balance,” he noted in his closing speech: “a balance between getting the best of the past, and the best of the future.”

“It’s a huge privilege to be working in Oman. It’s a time of great change.”

Check our website soon for information on the next Earthwatch lecture, which is taking place on Thursday, May 15: Can We Conserve Rainforests in the Face of Palm Oil Expansion?

The Earthwatch 2014 events program is supported by The Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa.

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