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THE HOLY WATER OF ZAM ZAM

Holy Mosque, Makkah[Picture: Holy Mosque, Makkah]

Unlike other geologic surveys worldwide, the Saudi Geological Survey faces a number of unique responsibilities that arise from its being the major national earth science body of the Kingdom. Foremost of these special responsibilities are the obligations it has towards the well-being and prosperity of the two holiest cities of Islam, Makkah al Mukarramah (Makkah the Holy) and Madinah al Munawwarah (Madinah the Illuminated).

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, HM King Fahd bin Abdulaziz takes keen interest in the affairs of Muslims all over the world, and particularly in those matters that affect the Holy Cities. The Zamzam well, which is located within the precinct of the Holy Mosque in Makkah, is sacred to Muslims because of its miraculous origin. Muslims cherish the holy water from the well, and hence His Majesty’s special interest in and attention to Zamzam in all its aspects.

Under a Royal Decree, the Zamzam Studies and Research Center was created by SGS to secure the supply, in terms of quality and quantity, of the holy water of Zamzam. As a result the Center has set up a series of investigative projects to define, quantify, and monitor the water source, and provide the information needed to manage and sustain supplies in the face of increasing demand by residents and pilgrims.

The Miracle of Zamzam Well

Dispenser for Zamzam water[Picture: Dispenser for Zamzam water]

According to Arab historians, the Zamzam Well, except for a few periods when it became dry or was buried under sand, has been in use for around 4000 years. The well marks the site of a spring that, miraculously , had issued forth from a barren and desolate wadi (non perennial stream) where the Prophet Ibrahim (Peace be upon him-pbuh), under Allah's command, had left his wife Hajar and their infant son Ismail (pbuh). In her desperate search for water, Hajar ran seven times back and forth in the scorching heat between the two hills of Safa and Marwa to provide water for Ismail (pbuh), who was dying of thirst. Allah, in His mercy, sent the Angel Gabriel, who scraped the ground, causing the spring to appear. On finding the spring, and fearing that it might run out of water, Hajar enclosed it in sand and stones. The name Zamzam originates from the phrase Zomë Zomë, meaning ‘stop flowing’, a command repeated by Hajar during her attempt to contain the spring water. The area around the spring, which was later converted to a well, became a resting place for caravans, and eventually grew into the trading city of Makkah, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) later returned to rbuild the first Bait-ul-Allah (House of Allah), originally build by Adam (pbuh). Because of its square shape, it is called The Ka’ba. It is the holiest Muslim shrine. The Ka’ba now stands in the center of the Holy Mosque, also called Al-Haram. The Zamzam well is located within the Holy Mosque at about 20 m east of the Ka’ba.

All able-bodied Muslims with sufficient financial means are obliged to make the pilgrimage to Makkah, known as the Hajj, at least once in lifetime. During the Hajj, pilgrims perform a number of rituals in the Al-Haram and outside Makkah at Muna, Arafat, and Muzdalifa. One of the rituals known as the Umrah, includes Tawaf (seven times circling) of Ka’ba and Sai between the hills of Safa and Marwa, which is to re-enact Hajar’s search for water Umrah can be performed at any time of the year. Millions of Umrah pilgrims visit Makkah throughout the year, the peak season being the month of Ramadan. Muslims drink Zamzam water during their visit and also carry it back home.

Structure and hydrogeology of the Well

The Zamzam Well is hand-excavated and is about 30.5 m deep, with an internal diameter ranging from 1.08 to 2.66 m. Hydrogeologically, the well lies within Wadi Ibrahim, which runs through the Holy City of Makkah, and taps groundwater from the wadi alluvium and, to a much lesser extent, the underlying fresh bedrock. The well is now housed in a basement room, protected by glass panels that allow a clear view of the well. Electric pumps are used to draw water from the well, replacing the ropes and buckets. No visitor is allowed to enter the Zamzam Well room and surroundings. Outside this room, there was a service area, where cold Zamzam water fountains and dispensing containers were provided for drinking purposes. Recently, the Al-Haram Tawaf area has been extended to cover the entrance to this area and it is no more accessible to pilgrims. Instead, cold Zamzam water fountains and dispensing containers are now placed at the periphery of Tawaf area.

Cross-section of the well[Picture: Cross-section of the well]

The upper 13.5 m of the well is excavated in the sandy alluvium of the Wadi Ibrahim, and the lower 17.0 m in the underlying diorite bedrock. In between lies a 0.5 m thick highly permeable weathered rock. Most of the alluvial section of the well is lined with stone masonry except for the uppermost 1m, which has a reinforced concrete collar.. The weathered rock section is lined with stone and it is this section that provides the main water entry into the well.

Research issues and objectives

Zamzam Studies and Research Center at SGS is to provide the required scientific solutions for effective monitoring and management of the aquifer feeding the Zamzam well and to ensure the purity and security of supply. The Center is currently focusing on the following aspects of management of the aquifer, the well and the Zamzam supply and distribution system:

  • Monitoring and managing demand to prevent depletion,
  • Urbanization of the Wadi Ibrahim catchment and its effect on recharge,
  • Management of storm drainage in relation to recharge,
  • Maintaining groundwater movement and quality through building controls,
  • Upgrading of the Zamzam pumping and storage system,
  • Optimization of Zamzam supply and distribution,

Monitoring and managing demand to prevent depletion

With the increasing accessibility of affordable air travel, the number of Muslims visiting the Holy City of Makkah has risen dramatically over the past 3 decades, from around 400,000 per year in the mid 1970’s to over several millions since the mid-1990’s.

Water levels in the Zamzam Well were formerly monitored by a simple drum hydrograph, but this has now been replaced by a more sophisticated real-time multi-parameter monitoring system, which makes digital records of water level' electric conductivity, pH, Eh and Temperature. The datalogger is accessible by SGS through the internet and the data can be examined and downloaded without going to the well. A network of other monitoring wells has also been installed throughout Wadi Ibrahim to monitor the response of the entire aquifer system to the recharge and discharge. Some of these wells are fitted with automatic digital water level recorders. .

With the increasing number of visitors, demand for Zamzam water was continually increasing. SGS’ task is to estimate sustainable well yield and recommend measures to prevent further increase in demand to ensure that sustainable supply limits are not exceeded.

Urbanization of the Wadi Ibrahim catchment and its effect on recharge

Pumping system of  Zamzam well[Picture: Pumping system of Zamzam well]

To sustain groundwater supply from wells, aquifers need to be continually recharged, either from direct infiltration of rainwater or from rivers flowing over the aquifer. In arid climates, where there is no permanent surface drainage, natural recharge is limited to rainfall from occasional, brief storms. Supply can be severely threatened during long dry periods, when water is effectively ‘mined’ from the aquifer with no source of replenishment.

The surface area or ‘outcrop’ of the Wadi Ibrahim alluvium covers only 60 square km. Limited recharge of the wadi alluvium aquifer occurs through infiltration of rainwater falling directly on the outcrop, supplemented by run-off from adjacent hillsides. Urban development of Makkah has now extended over the wadi bed, diminishing the already meager amount of rainwater infiltration into the underlying aquifer due to surface sealing and channeling of rainwater into storm drainage systems.

Modeling of aquifer recharge is therefore crucial to ensure that supply and demand for Zamzam water is appropriately balanced. The Zamzam Studies and Research Center is therefore assessing and quantifying the effects of urbanization on recharge, and developing recommendations for planning controls to limit further development on the outcrop of the wadi alluvium aquifer.

Management of storm drainage in relation to recharge

Glass enclosure surrounding the well-head[Picture: Glass enclosure surrounding the well-head]

Storm drains are designed specifically to prevent flooding by capturing rainwater falling on sealed urban surfaces such as roads and buildings, and carry the water away into wadis or into safe areas where it can be allowed to flood, infiltrate into the ground or evaporate. The Center has in undertaken intensive modeling of natural drainage patterns with Wadi Ibrahim catchment are in order to define ways and means of harnessing storm water.

Maintaining groundwater movement and quality through building controls

Old style drum hydrograph used for recording levels in the Zamzam Well[Picture: Old style drum hydrograph used for recording levels in the Zamzam Well]

Makkah is unusual among Saudi Araban cities because of its high proportion of relatively high-rise buildings, some of which are many decades old. High-rise development continues to present a solution to urban expansion over the Wadi Ibrahim catchment are, but the deep foundations required can expose the water table to contamination and also restrict groundwater movement. Strict building controls are therefore required for allowing high rise developments in sensitive areas, indicated by near real-time maps and models of the water table elevation calculated from monitoring well data, and by risk assessments of the likely impact on groundwater quality. Engineering geology maps of Makkah also help to highlight zones of lower development risk.

The Zamzam Studies and Research Center aims to present solutions to these complex and inter-related problems through a modern, integrated and multi-faceted approach to water catchment management and conservation. Through these actions, the quality and quantity of supply from the Zamzam Well can continue to be sustained to meet the spiritual needs of the world’s one billion Muslims.

Upgrading of Zamzam pumping and storage system

In order to manage demand water from Zamzam well is pumped, treated and stored in underground storage tanks a continual basis. Before distribution to consumers and transportation to Madinah Zamzam water is treated by a series of sand filters, micro filters and ultraviolet disinfection. Zamzam Studies and Research Center is engaged in design of upgrading the treatment system. Already, two phases of upgrading have been completed and the third phase is in active consideration. Moreover, the Center strictly follow these activities and ensures strict quality assurance measures.

Optimization of Zamzam supply and distribution

All pilgrims carry Zamzam water back home usually in plastic containers of 10 or 20 liters size, which they fill themselves from several filling points, situated around the Al-Haram and at a central filling station. But, more commonly they buy the filled containers from roadside venders on the outskirts of Makkah. This distribution system is wanting in hygiene and offsets the efforts of treatment. Therefore, Zamzam Studies and Research Center is in the process of evaluation of the present filling system and design of upgrading that will minimize direct human involvement and discourage peddling by venders.

Structure and hydrogeology of the Well

Wadi Ibrahim catchment area before development of Makkah[Picture: Wadi Ibrahim catchment area before development of Makkah]

The Zamzam Well is hand-excavated and is about 30.5 m deep, with an internal diameter ranging from 1.08 to 2.66 m. hydrogeologically, the well lies within Wadi Ibrahim, which runs through the Holy City of Makkah, and taps groundwater from the wadi alluvium and, to a much lesser extent, the underlying fresh bedrock. The well is now housed in a basement room, protected by glass panels that allow a clear view of the well. Electric pumps are used to draw water from the well, replacing the ropes and buckets. No visitor is allowed to enter the Zamzam Well room and surroundings. Outside this room, there was a service area, where cold Zamzam water fountains and dispensing containers were provided for drinking purposes. Recently, the Al-Haram Tawaf area has been extended to cover the entrance to this area and it is no Wadi Ibrahim catchment area after development of Makkahmore accessible to pilgrims. Instead, cold Zamzam water fountains and dispensing containers are now placed at the periphery of Tawaf area.

The upper 13.5 m of the well is excavated in the sandy alluvium of the Wadi Ibrahim catchment area after development of MakkahWadi Ibrahim, and the lower 17.0 m in the underlying diorite bedrock. In between lies a 0.5 m thick highly permeable weathered rock. Most of the alluvial section of the well is lined with stone masonry except for the uppermost 1m, which has a reinforced concrete collar.. The weathered rock section is lined with stone and it is this section that provides the main water entry into the well.