Policy options for releasing water from irrigation in Iran

Return to Water Home

Brian Chatterton, blchatterton@tiscalinet.it


My contribution to this round table will be concentrated on the problems of water use, over-allocation and some means of releasing water from the irrigation sector. I see from the background reports that water over-allocation to farmers accounts for one third of the crisis in the wetlands while a sustained period of low rainfall accounts for two thirds.
Our experience in the catchment of the Murray-Darling river system in Australia is that low rainfall has a large multiplier effect on runoff and aquifer recharge. That is almost certainly the case in Iran too. Australia is fortunate to have a longer period of accurate rainfall data and our experience has been that periods of below average rainfall can last for long periods. Whether is is a permanent climate shift we cannot yet be certain.


Over-allocation of water to irrigators is more easily understood in terms of a super tanker. Once it is on a course it is hard to turn it around. With water, the course of the last century and more has been to increase supplies through further engineering. The answer to a water shortage has been another dam, another canal to divert water from another catchment or another pumping scheme. That era is coming to an end throughout the world, not just in Iran, as we have reached the physical limits of the resource. There are few good engineering projects left but the costs are high compared to their benefits. It is difficult for water management authorities to understand the new reality. In Egypt for example there is still talk of “making the desert bloom” with new irrigation schemes but the reality is that the water for such schemes would have to come from existing irrigation areas. This make no economic, social or technical sense. Australia is trying to grapple with over-allocation and a failed water market.

The Australian water market

The Australian government gave the water in the Murray Darling basin to the farmers as pieces of property they could buy and sell among themselves. These pieces of property were extremely valuable so many powerful interests made sure that they obtained these water rights. Over-allocation was built into the market.
The trading of water rights did provide a powerful incentive to improve the efficiency of water use. Farmers could sell their surplus water or use it to extend their area under irrigation. This was good news for farmers but bad for the river basin. More water was needed not less.
The crisis of over-allocation hit Australia during a drought in the first decade of the 21st century. This four year period was the worst drought ever recorded and the water managers used this as an excuse for failure. Australia had a similar drought between 1939 and 1946 but in the 21st century three times as much water had been allocated to farmers for irrigation.
Following the drought the government decided to buy back some of the water that it had given away free of charge. This was done through the water market and produced a random pattern of abandoned farms. Infrastructure costs have increased and the remaining farms are often not profitable.
In the last few weeks the Australian government has reduced the buy back of water and put money into trying to diversify the local economies of towns dependant on irrigation.

Ownership of water

The current need in Iran is to release water from irrigation – that is to reverse over-allocation. Hopefully this can be achieved mainly through improved irrigation efficiency but before we go down that path we must be very clear that water is a community resource and that water savings are the property of the community to use as it sees fit. It is essential to avoid the mistakes made in Australia where improved efficiency made over-allocation worse as farmers sold their surplus water to other farmers.

Soft and hard policy options.

The list of proposed projects and policies for Lake Urmia (as outlined in the background documents) is most impressive. They can be divided into two broad categories. The soft options are the ones where farmers are encouraged to use less water and the hard options are where they face penalties. Unless great care is taken these two policies can work against each other.
If you want to persuade farmers and obtain their cooperation they must trust you. If you are threatening them at the same time that cooperation will not be forthcoming. That does not mean that you ignore illegal activities such as unauthorised wells but you need to try are isolate these farmers from the rest of the community. If you can get most of the farmers on your side they will become part of the enforcement team. Unpalatable as it may seem it might be necessary to offer some form of amnesty to some of the less serious offences in order to isolate the more serious ones from the rest of the farmers.

Improved irrigation efficiency

There are a number of actions proposed to improve water efficiency. I think these should receive priority because they can be effective, cheap and quick. Unfortunately they do not sound bold enough when reported in the press. “Farmers will be advised to use less water” sounds a weak response to the crisis.
There are a number of proposals that relate to better water use but one in particular is the establishment of demonstration farms for better water use and more sustainable agriculture. The reports show that the existing demonstration farms have already achieved as much as a 50% reduction in water usage, a 44% reduction in chemical use combined with a 18% increase in farm productivity. This is most impressive.
A large number of potential demonstration farms already exist. It is a matter of finding them. There are the elite farmers who are at the forefront of efficiency and sustainability. These can be used as demonstration areas more cheaply and faster than establishing a large network of government farms.
The concept is to spread the use of Best Practice. I am sure you are all well aware of the transformation in rice yields that is taking place in Madagascar, Rwanda, and Bihar state in India through the use of Best Practice methods of rice cultivation. Irrigation is no different. There are already farmers who are well above the average in terms of average irrigation efficiency and there are also many below the average. Dragging up the average and the tail end can release a great deal of water.
The problem is how to implement such a scheme to extend Best Practice. Building a dam or digging a canal is easy if you have the money. You sign a contract and away you go. Changing the farming system on ten thousand farms cannot be done in the same way.
The classic method is to put more money into research, from that work a few demonstration farms are developed. Extension staff are then trained on these demonstration farms and with this training they talk to farmers. It is the theory of trickle down from the experts to the passive farmers. There is a much quicker and more effective method than establishing many more demonstration farms. There are more efficient irrigators in the farming community. They should be identified and used as extension agents to spread their knowledge more widely. This is probably happening already but much too slowly. Government intervention in the extension of this farmer knowledge can increase the rate of adoption very dramatically.
If innovative farmers can be identified they can be used as extension agents to take their message of Best Practice to other farmers well outside their normal range of contact. I have been advocating the use of farmers as extension agents for at least forty years but have met with fierce resistance from the agricultural bureaucracy who see their position being threatened by people without any formal training. Farmers cannot be effective extension agents unless they are treated as equals and are paid accordingly.
This does not mean the end of the research centre or the Ministry's extension service as they will have a important role in developing further innovations but rapid progress can be made in improving efficiency by using the Best Practice already in the system.

Financial incentives within the irrigation sector

To make an effective package to take to farmers there needs to be a financial incentive as well as the knowledge package. That is not to say that farmers are not patriotic or that they do not care about the environment it is just that they have a clear idea that their contribution as a single individual will make little difference. The incentive package must be tailored to a single farmer or group.
In Australia farmers sold their surplus water which provided a strong incentive to improve efficiency and create a surplus. That worked for the farmer but there was no surplus for the conservation of the wetlands. In Iran such a scheme would have considerable difficulties.
There is the practical difficulty that it could not be enforced until the smart meters are in place. This will take some years. During that period farmers may increase their water use so they have a surplus to sell. As in Australia it might increase water consumption not reduce it.
Water could be purchased by the government at a fixed price so it does become available for the conservation of the wetlands but the whole idea needs considerable research as it could produce unintended consequences.
The reports mention that there is a project for the introduction of smart water meters. This provides the opportunity to introduce a progressive scale of water charges. Farmers would receive a reasonable amount of water at a reasonable price. Let us call this the green zone for water charges. Their excess water consumption over this amount would be charged at a step by step higher rate. Let us call this the orange zone. Consumption above a certain amount would be limited. This would be the red zone.
The change to more efficient irrigation systems will need investment on the part of farmers. Grants or cheap loans can be made available for this changeover.
In South Australia we forced the incentive onto farmers. We upgraded the water distribution system to pressurised pipes so farmer could connect their drippers or under tree sprinklers directly without the need for their own pumps. They paid more for pressurised water but less than the cost of pressurising it themselves.
It is also necessary to look beyond the farm gate. Can the food supply chain be reformed to give farmers better price so they have more money to invest or if they are forced to reduce output their income remains stable.

Incentives outside the irrigation sector

From my experience in West Asia and North Africa I can see there are considerable opportunities to expand production from the rain fed farming sector. That was also our experience when we had a project in Erbil. We were able to increase sheep production and wheat production substantially while reducing production costs at the same time. Iran, like most of West Asia. is severely under pastured. Upgrading pastures can increase sheep production by a factor of two or three times. Sheep meat is extremely expensive which is bad news for consumers but excellent news for farmers. Restoring degraded pastures will increase production and reduce soil erosion.
If farmers have access to land outside the irrigation zone they could compensate any fall in income with greater output from their rain fed operations.

Hard policy options

The proposed action plan has a number of penalties and punishments for those using water without authorisation. Before embarking on an enforcement program it is necessary to weigh the costs and benefits. The costs are the team of inspectors, more accurate water meters and a loss of trust in the farming community. There is also a social cost. If farmers are denied water what will the farming family do. On the benefit side of the equation farmers must realise that they cannot use water without proper authorisation. Without a degree of enforcement management of the water resource becomes impossible.
Before embarking on widespread enforcement it would be wise to do a pilot study to discover the level of illegal use. The more minor cases can be given an amnesty while the small minority of severe cases can be prosecuted.
This gradual approach also applies to the red zone for water allocation. This is the zone where water is physically limited. The orange zone is higher charges per unit while the red zone is where the tap is turned off. Rather than stopping the supply of water farmers immediately, they should be warned that their consumption within the red zone will be cut by say one fifth every year for five years until they are within the green and orange zones.


It is vital that irrigation efficiency flows through to more water for the community. The community can then decide whether to use it for the restoration of wetlands or other uses. This may seem an obvious point but in Australia greater irrigation efficiency allowed farmers to sell the community water to other farmers who then expanded their area under irrigation. Increased efficiency led to a greater water demand not a lesser one.
My second concluding point concerns implementation. It has become standard practice in development and within the UN organisations in particular to produce endless reports. Knowledge is churned through socio-economic studies, technical reports and a host of other specialities in the that this churning will produce some solutions. I can assure you it does not. It just delays the moment of decision. It is better to implement some pilot studies and use the best features of them to expand into more extensive programs.