Water management in Iran based on needs.

By Brian Chatterton. August 2015


In this paper I propose that water is allocated to farmers on the basis of need. Need is not an easy concept to define. Is it the water needed to grow a certain crop? Is it the water needed to produce a certain income? Obviously there is no easy or precise definition which is in contrast to the allocation of water based on volume. There are many other concepts we use in our daily life that are hard to define. Wealth and poverty may mean different things to different people but there is general agreement at the ends of the spectrum. Our political systems use words such as fairness and equity that are not easy to define in precise numerical terms yet they are used in the development of policies.

Developing a water management policy based on need is a simple objective that is easily understood by farmers even if they do not exactly agree where the need line should be drawn. It is also one that aims for a fair distribution of water and does not reward those who have used water extravagantly. Water policies should have support in the community as a whole not just among farmers and a needs based policy is likely to have popular appeal.

While this paper describes incentives, penalties and other instruments of economic policy making, it is important not to forget the simple aims such as “responsible use.” If these ideas can be promoted simultaneously with changes in the law and administration there will be more popular support not only among farmers but the community as a whole.

Water from rivers and canals.


Many river basins are coming to the end of a development phase based on the hydraulic mission. The hydraulic mission is the term used to describe the engineering project of the last few centuries that has transformed many river basins around the world. The building of dams, the digging of canals and the construction of inter-basin transfer tunnels has provided water for a huge expansion in irrigation. That expansion has in turn increased food supplies and incomes for farmers. That project is coming to an end as there is no more water to store or transfer or the cost-benefit ratio for the remaining schemes is too poor to justify their construction. This paper is not a pro or anti dams argument. That is something to be determined in each catchment.

The habits of the hydraulic mission die hard. Australia and California have during recent droughts shown that management not engineering is the future but there are still powerful lobbies advocating more engineering. It is a mistake to see the end of the hydraulic mission as a complete cut off point. There may still be further engineering projects that are effective but they are few and management of water use is the only sustainable way of avoiding acute scarcity.

Cap and trade – the water market

“Cap and Trade” is a term more commonly used with reference to the rationing of entitlements to pollute. It has reached global recognition with attempts to control the emission of carbon dioxide and other green house gases through cap and trade schemes. When applied to water it is usually referred to as “a water market.” Australia is one of the countries that has developed a water market or cap and trade scheme for the Murray – Darling River Basin. It is a good case study. The term cap and trade is a better description of the concept than a water market. From the point of view of the managers of a river basin the most important first step is the cap yet the term water market ignores this vital first stage and concentrates the attention of policy makers on the management of the water resource after the cap has been fixed.

In Australia the cap proved to be higher than the sustainable yield of the basin during the severe drought in the first decade of 21st century. A subsequent review recommended that the cap be reduced by 20% through a process of buying back the water rights. This process if completed will cost the Australian taxpayer billions of dollars at current water prices.

The use of trade following the application of a cap makes changes to the cap both difficult and expensive as the Australian case study has shown conclusively. The trade applies values to the water allocations which in effect become pieces of freehold property. The rights of the property holders are considered in Australia and other countries with water markets to be more powerful than the needs of the community as a whole (including the farmers as a group). The trade in water cannot exist without a cap. If there is no cap the resource is open and water can be obtain directly from the water authority. There is no need to purchase water from an existing holder of a water right. In other words there cannot be a price on water if supply is not restricted.

While the water market is dependent on a cap the reverse does not apply. A cap does not inevitably lead to a trade in water.

Determining the cap

In practice the cap it determined by historical use. A formula is used to determine the average amount of water used by irrigators and the aggregate of these individual allocations becomes the cap. It seems that the cap is usually determined from the aggregation of individual allocations rather than a division of the estimated sustainable yield for the river basin among the existing irrigators. Unfortunately we do not have sufficient records over a long enough period to tell whether the cap is sustainable. In Australia it proved not to be during the recent drought but historical records for river flow exist for about one hundred years and they showed clearly that the previous severe drought in the 1939 to 1946 period could not have sustained the level of the cap set in the 21st century. The major difference between the two droughts is that three times as much water had been allocated to farmers by the 21st century. As is often the case political expediency was more powerful than statistical analysis when it came to determining the cap.

While Australia and California have found that the cap is too high for periods of sustained drought and this may be the case in Iran one needs to remember that the water resource is renewable (unlike carbon) and under use must also be avoided. This seems to be a concern in Chile where water rights issued under the cap are not always utilised. Managers are concerned that this valuable national resource is being held for speculation rather than agricultural production.

In theory one could sweep aside the historical pattern of use and allocate the water on a theoretical model based on optimum water requirements for various crops, in different climatic zones on a range of soil types and drainage systems. This approach has a number of theoretical and practical problems. Assuming that such a theoretical model could be developed it takes no account of the skills of the farmer. It assumes an optimum model that is not found in the real world. On a more practical level it would take time and many river basins require immediate attention and cannot wait for the development of models that may never work. Also on the practical side it is politically difficult if not impossible as it sweeps aside the existing rights of farmers that have in some case existed for hundreds of years for an uncertain future allocation.

Basing the initial cap on historical use.

Historical use seems to be the only practical means of establishing the cap. The records exist and the farmers are given security. Such an approach does nothing to resolve the question whether the current (or more accurately a historical average) use can be sustained through periods of drought.

Before the individual allocations are fixed this problem must be considered and farmers given water with differing degrees of reliability. This would need to determined locally but a proportion of the water would have high level of reliability – perhaps 98%. Other water would have a lower reliability and some water might be allocated during the current year if the storages are all full.

This flexible cap is more in tune with the reality of a river basin than a simple cap based on one type of water allocation. In many instances there needs to be a reduction in the allocations beyond what can be achieved through this division of allocations into various categories based on it reliability.

The allocation of water based on historical use is inherently unfair. It favours the farmers who have used water extravagantly and penalises those who have started on the process of improving their water use efficiency. As the process of imposing a cap will take time farmers will act to increase their water use to try to obtain a larger allocation.

Trading the water rights.

Such a system of water rights with varying degrees of reliability would make trading in water more complex but not impossible. There are other reasons why trading should be discouraged or restricted.

Trading immediately gives monetary values to the water. It changes the relationship between the farmer and the water authority. That will not change immediately as farmers will be given their water rights for free but over time farmers will buy their water from other farmers. It becomes a commodity like any other to be used or not used as the farmer determines.

The older concept of the community providing the water freely (except for the cost of delivery) to the farmer who has an unwritten contract with the community is forgotten. The unwritten contract is to use the water responsibly. This is the actual experience of countries with well developed water markets. In Chile the water authorities are trying in the courts to force holders of water rights to use their water. Some holder have found it more profitable to speculate in the price of water than to use it. In fact they may not even own land that can be irrigated. While I have been discussing over-allocation of water as the major problem in Iran, under use of allocated water is a waste of a valuable national resource. The same speculative holding of water rights occurs in Australia but the authorities seem to be unconcerned.

The monetary value of the water right immediately introduces the question of compensation if the water rights are reduced through buy back. There is something extraordinarily unfair in the Australian system where the community gives the water rights to the farmers for nothing and then buys them back a couple of decades later. Australia is a wealthy country and can afford such largesse but other countries cannot. It is not only unfair to the Australian taxpayers who are funding this bonanza but it rewards the farmers who have used water extravagantly with even greater payments.

Saving water through improved efficiency

Greater efficiency is the great hope for reducing water use (in some situations water is recycled through the drainage system so reduced use does not improve overall basin efficiency) but that is not the reality because water use has been fixed by the cap. In countries as diverse as Australia and Morocco improved water efficiency has not saved water. The water saved has been used for increased production. In Australia the water can be traded. Other farmers can purchase the surplus provided by efficiency gains and use this purchased water to develop new land. In Morocco the farmers did not trade away their surplus water but used it on their own land to expand the area under irrigation or the number of crops grown.

Use and consumption.

I have used the term use rather than consumption because it is easier to manage use but the distinction is important and should not be forgotten. Use is the water applied to the land and consumption is the water that is lost during the process of growing the crop through evapo-transpiration. Water that enters the drainage system may be recycled but that depends on the local geology and the salinity levels of the soil. The Egyptian delta is an excellent example of recycling drainage water while the so called new lands in the Egyptian desert are an example of the opposite. Drainage water in the new lands is lost.

Allocation based on need.

Allocation on the basis of need is a quite different concept. Water is allocated to farmers on the basis of their needs. As I mentioned earlier needs can mean many things. The needs of the farmer to sustain the crops he grows is one interpretation. The needs of the farmer to sustain his income is another. I am suggesting the narrower definition as “the needs to sustain the crop.” Price fluctuations make income stability impossibly difficult. “Needs” should not be interpreted as a major redistribution of water among farmers. That is a matter for social and political policy not water management.

At first this concept might appear to imitate the theoretical modelling of water requirements that I rejected earlier as being technically and politically impossible. This is not the case as my concept is based on what can be achieved by farmers themselves not a theoretical model of their farm. It is a continuing process based on performance on the farm not a decision based on a computer program.

The farmer's need is determined locally and is based on the actual performance of all the farmers in the irrigation area. If we examine the efficiency of water use by farmers in an area we will find that efficiency levels are described by a standard distribution curve. Most farmers are grouped around an average. Some farmers use water extremely efficiently and some are extremely wasteful. The needs of the farmers are determined from a point on this curve somewhere above the average that will incorporate perhaps 85% of the farmers as acceptable and 15% as excessive users. The farmers beyond this benchmark point are eased back to the average level. The efficient farmers become innovators and demonstrators for the rest. The introduction of new technology and the example of the efficient farmers will over time improve the average level of efficiency and lead to changes in the benchmark standard. The farmers' allocation will be adjusted according to their revised use.

A core principle in the system is an accord between the water authority and the farmer to save water but not to reduce farm output and hopefully not the farm income either but that will depend on prices.

One of the first requirements of this system of allocation is a change of attitude among water managers. Their objectives should be broadened to consider the farmer and the water together not just the water. For hundreds if not thousands of years the water managers have seen their role as providers of water and have measured their success in those terms. They need in future to see their success in delivering cubic metres of wheat not simply cubic metres of water.

Benchmark standards

The benchmark standards are for local irrigation areas and are based on the actual use by farmers in that area. Elsewhere I have explained the establishment of Local Water Management Committees for irrigation areas with 1000 to 2000 farmers. To make reasonable sense of these benchmarks the irrigation areas needs to be reasonably similar. For example field crops such as wheat, lentils etc. It would not be possible to set benchmarks which included a too diversified range of crops – rice and pistachios for example. Even within an area with a similar range of crops – for example the field crop group – the setting of a benchmark standard will apply more pressure on some farmers than others. Alfalfa or lucerne if irrigated to its full potential over summer will take more water than winter wheat but this pressure may not be a bad thing. Farmer do have a seven year period to respond and that should provide ample time for them not only to use water more efficiently but if this is not enough to change their cropping patterns.

These are the problems that can only be determined at a local level. It is not possible to set benchmarks from Tehran.

The lease - a mechanism for moving from A to B

I have said that the only practical means of establishing a cap on water use is to use the historical pattern of use by individual irrigators. This policy rewards the wasteful users of water and penalises those who use it more economically. It also encourages the expansion of use during the period during which the cap is being put in place.

In the long term the allocations need to be reorganised on the basis of needs rather than an initial water grab. I have suggested that needs are determined not by a theoretical model but on the basis of actual standards set by farmers themselves.

The next issue is how to move from one allocation method to the other.

The conditional lease

A conditional water lease provides a possible mechanism. The lease is for 28 years and can be renewed for ever if the farmers uses the water responsibly. That means the farmer has a completely secure tenure for the water. It allows the farmer to invest and borrow money in the secure knowledge that the water allocated will be provided if possible (extreme drought is the only exception). It is important to stress this security of tenure as the starting point because farmers have strong historical rights to water and are naturally fearful if these are changed.

The 28 year lease is divided into 4 periods of 7 years. During the first 7 year period the farmer will be expected to meet some conditions. During the initial 7 year period these will relate to water use efficiency. As I have already mention these benchmark standards are set by the farmers themselves. Perhaps 85% or more of the farmers will already meet these benchmark levels. The remaining 15% will need to meet these standards over the 7 years.

If this group of 15% do so (and the majority of 85% who already have met them) their lease is renewed by another 7 years to return to 28 years.

If they fail to meet the benchmark level set locally the lease continues to expire. It will not be cancelled. During the next 7 year period they can reach the benchmark standard and their lease will then be renewed to the full 28 years.

If the farmer fails the review every 7 years for the whole 28 years the lease will expire and the water allocation will be cancelled. Alternatively the water allocation could be reduced to the benchmark level compulsorily.

The benchmark level is not set for the whole 28 year period but is reviewed every 7 years in light of the progress made by all the farmers in that local irrigation zone. While at the beginning water efficiency may be the major concern other conditions relating to pollution can be added.

Farm improvement groups.

The farmers in the group that must reduce their water use to meet the conditions on the lease should not be left to develop a better irrigation system on their own but should be supported through Farm Improvement Groups. These groups are formed by 100 to 200 farmers to provide advice on irrigation, other aspects of farming, management and marketing. They are purely advisory and are not organised to lobby governments on policy nor do they have any executive power. The farmers who have already achieved high efficiency standards and the Ministry of Agriculture can provide the technical input into these groups. The farmers will be supported to change and penalised if they do not (through their lease conditions) but the penalties are not fines or other monetary penalties which reduce their capacity to make money and invest.

The Farm Improvement Groups also provide a platform to introduce new crops and enterprises into the farming community. If these can increase farm income the problem of reduced water use is greatly diminished.

Incentives to use water more efficiently.

Farmers will be divided into two groups. There are the farmers who use more than the benchmark level and under the terms of their leases they must reduce their use over the first 7 years to the benchmark level or they will not be able to renew their lease. These farmers have a very strong incentive to become more efficient in their use of water. This group might be 15% of the farmers.

The other groups already meet the benchmark levels yet they can still become more efficient and should be encouraged to do so.

Saving in water charges.

Saving water will save farmers the charges they pay for the distribution of water to their farms. These distribution charges are not high. It is doubtful whether these savings would provide an adequate return on capital invested in water efficiency. There needs to be additional incentives to encourage these farmers to go beyond the legal requirement (to be below the benchmark level of consumption) of their lease.

Increasing the distribution charges

If the price of water (the distribution charge) is low then the price can be increased and this will increase the incentive to save water. That is standard economic theory but carries considerable political risk. I have suggested elsewhere that revenue from distribution charges should go to Local Water Management Committees as a means to reducing the hostile reaction from farmers. Increasing the charges by a small amount and gradually may be feasible but may have little impact. A large increase may be necessary to have a significant impact on the farmers' cost structure. Such a large increase will generate a considerable protest from farmers. It may not be effective in saving much water and will create a hostile atmosphere. The aim is to work with the farmer to save water. Increasing the charges above the level needed to cover the cost of distribution means that the charge will be labelled as a “resource tax.” While the government may claim that the whole purpose of water management is to achieve sustainability the counter claim that it is to raise revenue through the resource tax will drown out that message.

There are other problems with a substantial increase in distribution charges. If it is a resource tax why not tax all water – that is water in wells. That would be fair. This would create even greater difficulties. Below I have made suggestions on how illegal wells could be included in the management regime. If the water in wells were to be taxed the claim that the whole scheme is aimed at sustainability would be destroyed. The debate would be focused on the resource tax instead.

Another problem with the use of high water charges as a penalty for wasteful use is that it assumes that the farmer has the knowledge and capital to react. It assumes that the farmer will carry out an analysis of costs and returns and make the necessary investment. In the real world many farmers will not have the knowledge or the funds. Higher water charges are not going to help them accumulate profits to invest.

The sale of the surplus water.

The water market as established in Australia provides this incentive. For example, a farmer may reduce his water use by 20% without reducing his crop yield (as has been demonstrated by the Iranian Ministry of Agriculture). Under the Australian water market he would save 20% of the distribution charges for the water. This may be a significant amount but more important is the sale of the water right for the 20% of the water allocation that has now become surplus to his needs. The sale of these rights provides a once only capital payment that may well pay for the cost of the more efficient irrigation system. It appears to be a win-win formula and was encouraged by the Australian government on that basis.

The problem is that the cap for the irrigation area has not been reduced at all. It has simply been moved to another farmer. In fact the obligations of the water authority have increased. The 20% surplus is sold to another farmer who uses it to plant addition crops under irrigation. 10 ha of irrigated land becomes 12 ha. If there is a drought and the water authority is unable to supply the full allocation then 12 ha will suffer and suffer more severely than the original 10 ha. There will be more protests from farmers who have not received their full allocation.

Improved efficiency has the potential to reduce the need for water and therefore reduce the cap. Trading the surplus to other farmers only entrenches its use and make the reduction of the cap even more difficult.

There are other difficulties with the sale of the surplus water. Those farmers who are forced to be more efficient under the terms of their leases will also demand the right to sell their surplus water. If they do the whole system collapses as there will be no reduction in the cap.

The sale of water creates many legal problems. If the water ultimately belongs to the community or nation it is possible to grant farmers secure rights to use the water for their needs but not to profit from its sale. The ownership of the water by the community can be reconciled with the individual ownership of the right to use the water.

Annual water allocations.

Annual water is an exception. Annual water allocations are only granted when there is plenty of water available. Farmers take the risk of planting crops on the basis of this annual allocation. A water market in these allocations would be a good idea as they impose no obligations on the water authority.


Farmers who are below the benchmark levels for their area need to have a stronger incentive to reduce their use even further. They will pay less for their water in terms of the local distribution charges but that will not be a a great amount and it is doubtful whether this cost saving would make an adequate return on water efficiency investment such as drippers or under tree sprinklers. Cheap loans provided to farmers for water use efficiency would reduce the cost of the investment but it may be necessary to provide a grant as well as a cheap loan.

Of course over time even small savings will be reflected in the average use and there will be a reduction in the benchmark level for the second 7 year period of the lease. The farmers will then be under strong pressure to reduce use.

Drought reserves.

Farmers who used less than their allocation would have an on farm reserve for years of drought but this water is supposed to be highly reliable so the on-farm reserve is not a powerful incentive.

Buy Back

I am resistant to the idea of the government buying the water back from the farmer. It is better than a water market where the surplus water is simply used by another farmer and the overall cap is not reduced. However it is the government buying back from the farmer something that belongs to the community.

Buying back the surface water would immediately lead to demands from owners of wells to buy back their water too. The cost of buying back 26 BCM of water (the estimated over pumping from aquifers) would be enormous but also more complex as there is currently no measure of the farmers' extraction from these wells. To buy back water could be extremely expensive. It may not cost a great deal initially but as the surplus water is removed from the system the remaining water becomes more and more valuable and the government will have to offer a higher price to obtain it.

A buy back scheme also changes the whole nature of water management. A water market or a buy back scheme turns water into another commodity or farm input like fertiliser or herbicide. The use of these inputs is determined by simple cost benefit ratios. The decision by a farmer to sell some water will be determined in the same way. That should not the case with water. It is important in all discussions to stress to farmers the fact they have been provided with a precious and limited national resource and they must use it responsibly. It is similar to teaching children to turn off the tap. It is not just the small saving of water but one's responsibility as a citizen to prevent unnecessary waste.

It is important to choose one policy not both as in Australia. That is a policy to subsidise farmers to save water and take it back over time through changes to the benchmark levels or a policy to buy the surplus water. It is excessive support to subsidise the farmers to save water and then buy back the water the farmer saves.

Who owns the water?

Ownership of the water has only become important with the end of the hydraulic mission and the imposition of a cap on use. For thousands of years water was usually an open community resource. It was abundant and available to all. There were exceptions such as the Iranian qanats. The hydraulic mission greatly expanded the availability of water for farmers to use in the right place at the right time for productive agricultural output and delayed the imposition of a cap on use.

Once a cap is placed on the water resource questions of ownership need to be considered. Rationally ownership of water would apply to the owners of the land on which the rain falls. If not total ownership at least an interest but I know of no country where the producer of surplus water has a water right. It is the users not the producers that have gained rights in countries such as Australia, Chile, and USA. In Iran the national law says the water in lakes and rivers belongs to the nation. This general principle is also true in other countries such as Spain but the reality has become quite different and users in Spain have acquired water rights which may not be consistent with the national constitution but are recognised and purchased by the government in buy back schemes.

My proposal provides the farmer with a permanent right of use (provided he uses the water responsibly) which one could say is very close to ownership but it is not the permanent right of use to a fixed quantity of water by volume but to the water he needs to maintain the production from his farm. As the farmers' needs change through the adoption of more efficient means of irrigation so does the volume of water. The farmers and the government will need to work closely together to change the level of need. In this way a surplus of water can be generated for use by urban populations and a return to the environment without penalising the farmer. Nor is an expensive buy back scheme required to purchase the water.


Large scale reorganisations of government bureaucracies waste time and resources as the bureaucracy turns inward to reorganise rather than outwards to serve the community. Ministries of Water and Agriculture need to work closely together but this can be done at a local level without attempting the massive task of try to merge the two. If water managers are to develop policies that are concerned more with the cubic metres of wheat than cubic metres of water there must be a closer cooperation between water and agriculture.

Elsewhere I have suggested an arrangement where representatives of water, agriculture and the the environment sit on local water management committees with three farmer representatives and an independent president. These committees would determine local benchmark levels. These committees can be seen as the “hard power” as they control the water use within the rules laid down regionally and nationally. The “soft power” of persuasion is equally important and must not be neglected. The Farm Improvement Groups are the mechanism for persuading farmers to change.

Aquifers and wells


The impact of modern technology on aquifers has been considerable. On the one hand wells can be dug cheaply and easily but this has not been coupled with a resource management plan so aquifers are being over exploited around the world. As is often the case some of the worst examples come from the USA. During the 1920s and 1930s poor dryland farming techniques in northern Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana turned a productive grass land into the infamous dust bowl. Now the problem has been “solved” through the exploitation of a deep aquifer but already the water level in the aquifer has dropped by more than 35 metres and it is only a matter of few decades before a similar resource management crisis decimates irrigated farming.

Establishing a cap.

The management of aquifers and wells in Iran is many times more difficult than surface water irrigation. The aquifers are being seriously depleted. Water levels in wells are dropping and land is subsiding. It is difficult to determine their safe yield but most estimates indicate that the recharge rate is about half of current usage. Current estimates are an usage of 53 BCM/yr while the recharge rate is only 26 BCM/yr. The aquifers are being utilised through hundreds of thousands of unauthorised wells which complicates attempts at managing them.

Water levels in wells are dropping and land is subsiding. With surface water the current water use is too high only in the sense that it leaves insufficient margin for drought, the environment and future urban use. The Iranian Ministry of Agriculture has shown that a 20% reduction in use is possible without loss of productivity through greater efficiency. If this 20% saving can be returned to community management the bulk of the water management problems have been solved.

For ground water the current use is double the sustainable yield just to achieve a stabilisation of water levels. A greater reduction is needed to restore the levels. An obvious first stage would be to stabilise water levels. Trying to restore the aquifers will be an even more difficult task.

The management of water within aquifers also causes a considerable conflict between private and public ownership. With rivers, canals and inter-basin transfers the public involvement and investment cannot be denied but wells are paid for privately yet public intervention is vital to develop a sustainable management plan. Currently the owners of the wells are embarking on an arms race to obtain water from a greater depth with more powerful pumps. This will end in economic hardship for everyone. Some form of community management is the only solution to save the aquifers and to save the farmers' profits.


An amnesty on illegal wells is the only practical option. It is politically impossible to close all the illegal wells and it is better to accept this inevitability in a single bold gesture and try to gain as much as possible in terms of water management through the amnesty.

Amnesties are dangerous. People come to believe that the illegal activities will be forgiven if they wait. Before announcing an amnesty it is important to put in place strong controls. The first is to license all contractors who dig wells. They must examine the permission obtained by the property owner before they dig a well. If they dig an illegal well their license is cancelled and their equipment is confiscated.

In addition satellite imagery and aerial photography should be used to monitor irrigated areas.

The amnesty should include fines based on the amount of water drawn from the well. The owner should declare the amount – it need not be the amount actually taken but the amount he needs. He will then be required to fit a meter, at his own expense, to record this amount. He will also need to declare the area he irrigates which can then be registered on the land title and on the aerial images.

It might be argued that this self declaration of the individual cap is an opportunity to obtain more water by the simple expedient of paying a greater penalty. This is true to a limited extent. The farmer needs to declare the area irrigated as well. This can be monitored from the air. When the Local Water Management Committee is established he will need to conform to the benchmark levels. The “purchase” of more water than he needs will be an expensive means of obtaining water for a short period.

The amnesty can be carried out in stages with those who apply voluntarily paying a lower penalty than those who are discovered through the use of satellite imagery.

Stage One: For perhaps the first year of the amnesty, owners of wells can come forward to have them registered. The registration will be for a volume of water and an area irrigated. A penalty will be paid. Small wells for domestic and home production will be outside the management regime. A meter needs to be fitted at the owners expense.

Stage Two: As irrigated fields are identified through satellite imagery the owners will be identified too. Those not registered will be challenged by inspectors and their wells will be registered compulsorily. A higher penalty will be paid. They will also need to fit a meter at their own expense. This period will also expire.

Stage Three: After the expiry of the Stage Two amnesty further wells that are identified will be closed and sealed.

Setting a cap

Setting a cap is not easy because the number of wells is not known precisely and there is no measurement of the water taken from the wells – only estimates. There is no historical record for the setting of a cap in the same way as there exists for surface water. If a needs based approach is taken it is possible to set a cap based on the current water use. The well owners included in the amnesty will need to declare a use level. This will determine their penalty and will be their future cap – or at least the starting point for a needs based cap. It may be possible to obtain a declared output from legals wells too.

Using satellite imagery and aerial photography it is possible to determine the area and perhaps even the crops being irrigated from wells. This can then be related back to land ownership and individual wells. The system can be used in the future (assuming an amnesty) to monitor all wells. The concept moves directly from the irrigated areas to the water need without going through the interim stage of historical use. This interim stage is used for surface water.

While this sounds simple enough I realise that it is not. Satellite imagery and aerial photographs taken in mid or late summer will show clearly areas that are dried off annuals. These are obviously not being irrigated but in early summer cereal crops may have been irrigated in spring. Green areas in late summer will probably be irrigated if they are annual crops or forages but for tree crops the picture is not so clear. It would be necessary to undertake a pilot program over a period of a complete season or perhaps more to see if the system is an effective means of identifying irrigation from wells.

Reconciling land use and land ownership is extremely difficult as the British Government has proved conclusively over the last decade or so with their failed attempt to use this as the basis of their subsidies to farmers.


As an outside observer of these computer projects it appears that the large ones fail more frequently or else the smaller ones are weeded out by the market so only the good ones survive.

The large projects are too ambitious and are designed to please the people at the top of the administration who are paying rather than the people at the bottom who are using it. They are expensive and take too long to come on stream. When they are planned assumptions are made that certain data needs to be collected but when progress is made on the project it is found that the data is more complex or local than first anticipated. The system has to be modified with more cost and delays. I can see the same happening with a national computerised database for irrigation in Iran. It may seem simple enough to collect five or more fields of information nationally but the reality is that eventually it will be discovered that there is data in the Lake Urmia region that is additional or different to data on the Zayandehrood. Big systems will need to be patched and with many patches are more prone to failure.

Currently there are apps in Australia and I am sure in many other countries that allow farmers to map their farms and insert other information on crops, fertilisers etc. These apps could be used or easily and quickly adapted to serve a local irrigation area consisting of 1000 to 2000 farmers. The application would map the fields, their owners, the status of their lease, the crops etc. As long as all the irrigation areas used the same app the information should at a later stage be interchangeable but if it is not then a manual transfer of a small amount of aggregate data to a national system is a small price to pay for a system that works efficiently in the field for 95% of its users.

Examples of apps for farms:



The next stage should be to meter all the larger wells (not just the wells legalised under the amnesty) and begin a program of more efficient water use similar to that described above for surface water. Metering is important but it is only a means to an end. Some authors seem to see it as an end in itself. That is metering will solve the allocation problem. The allocation policy is the vital part not the meters.

I have described elsewhere the need to concentrate on the larger wells and leave those used for self sufficient production of food outside the management regime. These smaller wells can be monitored using the same system to ensure they are not gradually expanded to become large production units.

While the use of imagery and photography will be an effective management tool computer programs need to be developed to alert managers to changes as doing so manually will be time consuming.

Reducing the cap

The problem with wells is much more severe than for surface water and the cap will need to be reduced by a much greater amount than just efficiency savings. There will need to be a change in cropping patterns and some land will need to be taken out of production completely. However policy should not be over awed by the severity of the crisis and prevent a start to the registration of wells and a cap at the current levels.

The cap on individual wells can be different to that for surface water. The aquifer reserves are vast otherwise the rate of use could not have been sustained as long as it has already. That means an average cap is possible. Farmers could use more in a dry season if they used less in a wet one. This would need to be considered in detail to ensure that it did not become a loophole for avoiding the cap – perhaps only introduced once water levels have been stabilised.

Who owns the water?

With surface water Iranian law states that the water in lakes and rivers belongs to the community as a whole. This community involvement is reinforced by the large and visible investment in dams, canals and inter basin transfer tunnels. The farmers need security for their use of the water. The 28 year lease is a compromise that recognises rights of both the community and the farmers.

For the water in aquifers the situation is more ambiguous. Logically the water in the aquifer is just as much a community resource as the water in the lakes and rivers but that is not the perception among farmers. They feel that the only investment has been their expenditure on the well and the pumping equipment. They believe the water below their ground is theirs. It is important not to become distracted with debates on the ownership question. It is not a debate the government will win whatever the logic and argument should be moved to to the simple fact that the well is illegal and that management is essential for the farmers benefit as much as for the environment and other community benefits. The important objective is the management of the use of water to a level that is sustainable. The 28 year lease model may not be appropriate.

An alternative would be to include an agreement to join a Local Water Management Area as part of any amnesty of illegal wells. To take part in the amnesty a farmer would need to do the following:

* Declare the area irrigated and the volume pumped from the well. This will be monitored using satellite imagery.

* Fit a meter at his own expense.

* Join a Local Water Management Area and accept its decisions.

Local Water Management Committees

These local committees should operate in the same manner as those established in the irrigation areas fed from rivers. It will be more difficult. The irrigated areas fed from rivers and dams have groups of farmers served by a common branch canal that have a common interest. The farmers served by an aquifer are more widely spaced and while they certainly have a common interest in the sustainability of the aquifer that fact is not so immediately obvious. Bringing them together will be difficult.

The Local Water Management Committees play a vital role in reducing the output from wells to a sustainable level but they are also important to ensure there is a fair distribution of pain. Farmers will accept restrictions if they feel they are being applied fairly and if they feel that their own case is being unfairly dealt with they are more likely to accept the final decision if they are able to put their case to a local committee which has farmer members.

Dryland farming

Dryland farming has considerable potential for improvement in Iran. Production levels are well below their potential in comparison to countries with a similar climate such as southern Australia. This general observation has a very specific impact on irrigation in general and for wells in particular. A considerable amount of irrigation water is used for the production of animal feed. Much of the animal feed could be produced using natural rainfall alone. It would cost less to produce. Farmers may complain that the feed produced using rainfall alone is not available during summer and autumn and can be greatly reduced during years of drought. These problems can be overcome through the production of hay and other reserves.

In addition it may be necessary to look at drought compensation. Drought can reduce the output of dryland farming by a considerable amount. If drought continues the reserves of hay and grain will become exhausted. Drought can do the same for irrigated farming over a longer drought if the water storages are dry but irrigation from wells is stable in the short term. If farmers are encourage to turn off their irrigation from wells they may need support when their reserves of cash, hay and grain run out because of a severe drought.

Public campaigns

This paper has concentrated on policy initiatives but public campaigns are also important as farmers and the community as a whole are not economic animals but respond to sensible policies. It is important to pitch the campaigns at a reasonable level. Advertising professionals will tend to aim low with simple slogans such as “Save water” which will have no significant impact. The complete details of a water management policy will be too complex to explain to a large audience but broad outlines of a policy based on needs and fairness could gain considerable support from farmers and the community as a whole. This can be done through articles in newspapers and documentary films on TV.


The first stage of managing the use of water for irrigation is to apply a cap to the volume of water used. For surface water historical use is the most practical means of allocating this water to individual farmers. The cap prevents further expansion but does nothing to reduce the use of water. Historical allocations are practical but not fair as they reward extravagant users. If the cap on volume of water allocated is followed by trading through a water market the cap becomes fixed in value as well as volume and a reduction of the cap becomes extremely costly.

Changing water use management from volume to need can provide a basis for a more sustainable use of the water resource. It can provide a mechanism through which farmers can release water for urban use and the environment. Farmers will not be financially penalised as their needs are met nor will they obtain a windfall bonus for their previous extravagant use. Policy makers should be more concerned with cubic metres of wheat rather than cubic metres of water.

More efficient use depends on a range of management inputs not just the efficient application of water. In spite of these difficulties I believe the concept has advantages that greatly outweigh the lack of precision and difficulties in implementation.

The principles can be applied to the management of aquifers with some modification. We do not have a historical record of the volume of water taken from wells but we do, through aerial photography, have historical record of the need. If we have the area of crop and the amount of water needed we can apply volume allocations.

The over pumping of aquifers is so serious that the recharge cannot be bought into balance through more efficient irrigation alone. There needs to be a reduction in the area irrigated from wells. If there is a strong program to develop dryland farming as a source of forage/pasture it will be possible to reduce the area of irrigated forage with little impact on the income of farmers.