13.COM 10.B.39

The Committee

  1. Takes note that the United Arab Emirates has nominated Al Aflaj, traditional irrigation network system in the UAE, oral traditions, knowledge and skills of construction, maintenance and equitable water distribution (No. 01269) for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

Al Aflaj is an irrigation system in the United Arab Emirates that uses an underground tunnel to conduct water across long distances from an underground source to a sharia (basin), where the community can access it. The Al Aflaj system is based on inherited knowledge and practices relating to nature, especially the region’s topography, and traditional skills and craftsmanship relating to digging and maintaining the irrigation system and ensuring the fair distribution of water, based on nocturnal and diurnal methods of measuring time. There are around 300 Aflaj in the country, distributed along the foothills of the Al Hajar mountain range. The water flows by gravitational force, and the underground tunnels reduce evaporation. Al Aflaj also includes a network of surface channels, which distribute water to farms. The Al Aflaj system and related knowledge is a source of pride for citizens and is closely related to various social practices, events and festivities. There are rich oral traditions relating to Al Aflaj, with citizens having memorized poetry, riddles, jokes, stories, fairy tales and legends about its construction. The practice has allowed communities to survive in an arid climate and promotes the sustainable use of natural resources and related knowledge and skills have been passed down across the generations through instruction and shared experience for 3,000 years.

  1. Decides that, from the information included in the file, the nomination satisfies the following criteria for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

R.1:   Al Aflaj comprises a number of practices, customs and areas of knowledge concerning water management in difficult desert conditions, serving economic, ecological and social functions. It plays a central role in traditional modes of social communication and organization of local communities. The communal use of water resources and the system for the equitable distribution of water are based on cooperation and mutual respect, which promotes cohesion within the local community. The Aflaj and surrounding oases are community spaces where people gather, relax and spend their leisure time together. In its complexity, Al Aflaj links tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

R.2:   Al Aflaj can promote dialogue concerning water distribution in difficult climate conditions and the related social context, especially the need for unconditional cooperation, dispute resolution and the transmission of highly specialized knowledge. As traditional irrigation systems exist in other countries, the inscription would highlight the significance of the knowledge essential to living in arid areas related to Al Aflaj and similar traditions worldwide. It would also promote human creativity by pointing out ingenious systems of bringing water to the surface.

R.4:   The nomination process was led by the Intangible Heritage Department of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority with the active participation of researchers, land owners, teachers and expert practitioners who met several times to discuss the safeguarding measures and how to implement them. A number of individuals expressed their prior and informed consent to the nomination, including important tradition bearers, institutions and organizations in local communities.

R.5:   Al Aflaj was initially included in 2003 in the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Abu Dhabi under the domain of traditional handicraft arts. The entry was twice updated, in 2011 and 2016, with community participation. The inventory concerned is maintained by the Intangible Heritage Department of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority. The overall description and related documentation are detailed, including an explanation of specialized terminology.

  1. Further decides that, from the information included in the file, the nomination does not satisfy the following criterion for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

R.3:   The file provides extensive information on safeguarding measures that revolve around a proposed maintenance and development project aiming at promoting the palm tree oases and Al Aflaj as tourist destinations and leisure areas, including the creation of a ‘heritage park’, a museum and an information centre. While these could possibly help promote the element, no specific measure has been planned to assess the impact of this project on the social and cultural values of the element; such safeguarding measures may lead to denaturing the element and thereby ultimately endangering its viability. In addition, most of the measures appear to focus on built structures and very little attention is actually paid to securing the transmission of the element and the cultivation of the active relationship of local communities to this vital part of their living conditions, particularly its knowledge, know-how and cultural meanings.

  1. Decides not to inscribe Al Aflaj, traditional irrigation network system in the UAE, oral traditions, knowledge and skills of construction, maintenance and equitable water distribution on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity;
  2. Acknowledges the State Party’s attempt to complement the protection of the Cultural Sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas) under the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage with the safeguarding of the knowledge and skills related to the construction and maintenance of Al Aflaj and equitable water distribution, but reminds it that the 2003 Convention and the 1972 Convention are based on different principles and criteria;
  3. Recommends that the State Party pay heed to the likely decontextualization of the element resulting from its use as a tourist attraction, and that it undertake suitable measures to safeguard the intangible aspects of Aj Aflaj;
  4. Further reminds the State Party that updating is an important part of the inventorying process and encourages it, should it wish to resubmit the nomination, to include detailed information on the periodicity and modality of updating concerning the Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Abu Dhabi, in accordance with Article 12.1 of the Convention.

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