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I.  Background

A.  Geography and Agriculture

Iran covers a total area of about 1.75 million square kilometers.  About 52% of the country consists of mountains and deserts, and some 16% of the country has an elevation of more than 2000 meters above sea level.  The cultivable area is estimated at about 51 million hectares, which is 29% of the total area.  In 2005 18.1 million hectares were cultivated.  Of this area, 16.5 million hectares consisted of annual crops and 1.6 million hectares of permanent crops.[1]

Iran is an agricultural country, and the agricultural sector plays an important role in the national economy.  Almost 27% of the gross national product (GNP) and 23% of the labor force belong to agriculture.  The agricultural sector is the major user of water in Iran, consuming more than 93% of the country’s water resources.[2]  Agricultural water productivity is one of the most important issues in economic development.  The dry, high desert climate in Iran forced farmers to develop special methods of using their limited natural resources.[3]

B.  Historical Background

Iran is located in a semiarid region of the Middle East.  Distribution of precipitation is uneven.  The average amount of precipitation over the country is 252 millimeters/year, which is less than one-third of the world average.  Although water surpluses exist in the mountain regions, the areas of high population concentration and high water demand are hundreds of miles away.

Iran is actually one of the driest countries of the world.  Even if all the renewable water resources could be utilized, excluding the incoming international rivers, the total amount of water is not more than 117 billion cubic meters.  Considering that about 88 billion cubic meters are currently used each year, the country is left with about 30 billion cubic meters of additional water capacity for future use.[4]

Nationalization of the waters and land reform in Iran took place in the 1960s as part of the Shah’s “White Revolution.”[5]  The government adopted an emphasis on agriculture and water resources as the foundation of this program.  In 1960 the first land reform law was passed, but it was impracticable.[6]  Although the discussion of land reform had started by the late 1950s, it wasn’t until 1961 that a new law passed parliament, becoming effective on January 9, 1962.  Its main goals were to fix the upper limit of private property at one village and to distribute confiscated lands among sharecroppers.[7]  After the nationalization of the waters, many dams were constructed for the sake of water conservation, and the area of land under irrigation increased from 2 million acres (8,000 square kilometers) in 1968 to 5.6 million in 1977.[8]  Since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian agriculture has suffered from a low level of investment as well as confusing government policies.[9]

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II.  Legal Framework

A.  Laws Governing Water Use in Agriculture

Although in Iran customary law plays an important role in regulating water laws in agriculture, contemporary Iranian water law is derived from many statutory provisions in addition to the residual customary law.[10]

Iran has a comprehensive legal framework regarding the use of water in agriculture.  Article 50 of Iran’s Constitution states that “[t]he preservation of the environment, in which the present as well as the future generations have a right to flourishing social existence, is regarded as a public duty in the Islamic Republic.  Economic and other activities that inevitably involve pollution of the environment or cause irreparable damage to it are therefore forbidden.”[11]  Based on Iran’s Constitution the protection of the environment is a public obligation.

According to Iranian law all water bodies are public property.  The first water law after the revolution in the Islamic Republic of Iran was approved in 1982.[12]  Based on this law, allocating and issuing permits to use the water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes is the responsibility of the Ministry of Energy (MOE).[13]  The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is appointed to distribute water for agriculture among farmers and collect water fees.  Water and wastewater companies are responsible for the distribution of water for domestic use in urban and rural areas and for collecting fees.[14]

Based on current law (established in 1982), the price for regulated surface water is between 1–3% of the value of cultivated crops.  Based on the 1982 law, water pumped from groundwater resources must be in accordance with the crop water requirement and proposed cropping pattern in each region.  In this case, the price for groundwater resources is 0.25–1.0% of the commercial value of the crop yield.

Important legislation that is relevant to water use in Iranian agriculture includes the following:

  • Plant Protection Act (1967) and Plant Protection Implementation Regulation
  • Law on the Protection of Forest and Rangelands (1967)
  • Nationalization of Water Resources Act (1968)
  • Law for the Formation of Farm Corporations (1968)
  • Law for the Establishment of Companies for the Development and Utilization of Lands Downstream from Dams (1968)
  • Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (1974)
  • Law for Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (1974)
  • Law for Protection of the Natural Parks, Protected Areas, and Sensitive Areas (1975)
  • Land Acquisition Law (1980)
  • Law for Proper Use of Water Resources (1982)
  • Law for Environmental Protection Against Water Pollution (1984)
  • Law on Economic, Cultural, and Societal Development (1989)
  • Law for Protection Against Natural Environmental Damage (1991)
  • Law for Environmental Protection and Development (1991)

B.  Powers of Government Authorities in Charge of Administering Water in Agriculture

According to Iran’s Constitution, “[p]ublic wealth and property, such as uncultivated or abandoned land, mineral deposits, seas, lakes, rivers and other public waterways, mountains, valleys, forests, marshlands, natural forests, unenclosed pastureland, legacies without heirs, property of undetermined ownership, and public property recovered from usurpers shall be at the disposal of the Islamic government for it to utilize in accordance with the public interest.”[15]

More than 94% of the total annual water consumption in Iran is used for agriculture.[16]  Based on Iranian law, water bodies (rivers, lakes, seas, etc.) are public property, and the government is responsible for their management.[17]  Article 1 of the Nationalization of Water Resources Act indicates that “[a]ll waters running in rivers, natural streams, valleys, brooks, or in any other natural courses, either surface or underground, as well as flood, sewage and drainage waters, and those of lakes, marshes, natural ponds, springs, mineral waters, and underground water resources are considered as national wealth and belong to the public, and the responsibility for the safeguarding and utilization of this national wealth and the establishment and management of water resources development establishments are charged to the Ministry of Water and Power.”[18]

Traditionally, the provision of water has been the responsibility of the government.  As far as groundwater is concerned, the private sector invests in drilling wells, which are then operated and managed by farmers.  In 1943, Iran set up an independent irrigation institute, whose function is to supervise and carry out all irrigation projects.  It has the right to collect fees from the allocation of water and form societies through which private owners can participate in its work.[19]  In recent years there has been a large increase in private-sector financing of water projects, especially irrigation and drainage systems.  Between 1994 and 1999 the cumulative new private-sector capital expenditures in water projects in the Islamic Republic of Iran came to US$84 million.[20]

Prior to the enactment of the Nationalization of Water Resources Act, the utilization of water resources had been governed by shari’a law (complex body of Islamic rules) and customs.  The enactment of the Nationalization of Water Resources Act enabled the government to establish farm corporations if 51% of the farmers accepted to join, although the government could also establish farm corporations under any circumstances without the farmers’ consent.

The Law for the Formation of Farm Corporations was passed on January 16, 1968;[21] the Law for the Establishment of Companies for the Development and Utilization of Lands Downstream from Dams was approved on May 27, 1968.[22]  These laws provide that agribusiness units were to be not less than 5,000 hectares.  With these laws the government set the stage for large-scale mechanized farming in the project area.

By the end of the 1960s, several large multipurpose dams to provide regulated flow water had been built by the government.  Because little attention had been given to the development of water distribution systems below these dams, the government came to the conclusion that most of these lands could not be brought into production without investment in both distribution systems and precision land leveling on a massive scale.  These factors, taken in the context of the government’s pursuit of land reform, led the government in 1968 to pass a law regulating the development of irrigable lands downstream from dams.[23]  These lands were nationalized, the villagers and ex-landlords being compensated for loss of their title rights.  The law provides that these lands, totaling about 300,000 hectares, will be leased to companies formed with capital from private Iranian, foreign, or government sources, or from a mixture of these sources.  Leases cannot exceed thirty years, and the area of such leases must be at least 1,000 hectares.[24]

Increased awareness of the limitations of natural resources has played an important role in adopting appropriate policies and strategies.  Some of the current priorities are as follows:

  • establishing a comprehensive management system over the whole water cycle according to the principles of sustainable land and water development in river basins;
  • developing water resources within the framework of national plans and comprehensive river basin plans;
  • integrating water resources development, exploitation, and protection plans with other national and regional plans;
  • promoting agricultural water productivity while remaining attentive to the economic, security, and political concerns related to the harvesting and extraction, supplying, storage, and consumption of water;
  • ensuring that agricultural water resources are used not only efficiently but in a socially just manner; and
  • promoting public awareness about limited natural resources.[25]

According to Iranian law the following ministries are directly responsible for development and assessment of water resources:

The Ministry of Energy (MOE) is responsible for energy supplies and water resources.  Within the MOE, the Water Affairs Department (WAD) is responsible for the planning, development, management, control and conservation of water resources.  The WAD consists of the following sections: Water Resources Management Company, Provincial Water Authorities, Irrigation and Drainage Operation and Maintenance Companies.  The Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) is responsible for subsurface drains, tertiary and quaternary canals as well as farm development and irrigation techniques.  The Ministry of Agriculture is appointed to distribute water for agriculture among farmers and collect the water fees.  Water and wastewater companies are responsible for the distribution of water for domestic use in urban and rural areas and for collecting fees.  The Ministry of Jihad-e-Sazandagi [The Ministry of Reconstruction] deals with watershed management and rural development.  On the other hand, Iran Department of the Environment (DOE) is responsible for the preparation of the environmental protection policy and the laws.[26]

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Department of the Environment (DOE) is responsible for the formulation of both the environmental protection policy and the laws, directives, and systems that are necessary for evaluating the impact of social and economic development projects related to the environment, particularly irrigation and hydropower projects, and monitoring their implementation.[27]

Recently, Iran’s Expediency Council passed the Drive to [Achieve] Self-Sufficiency in Industry, Agriculture, Defense, and Security Decree,[28] which makes the implementation of the plan a strategic goal for the government.  One of the critical objectives of the document is the achievement of self-sufficiency in agricultural and food production.[29]

C.  Requirements for Licenses to Use Water

Based on Iranian law the use of water resources requires obtaining a water use permit.[30]  No one is allowed to use water for any other purposes than what has been mentioned in the permit, nor  is the permit transferable to others. [31]  A water use permit is applicable solely to the piece of land for which it has been issued, unless the government in the region decides otherwise and/or the use of the water is determined to be harmful or uneconomical.[32]  Recent years have witnessed a renewed emphasis on integrated management of water resources, on the basis of which a new comprehensive water act and water management system are being developed.

D.  Providing Water for Agriculture and Settling Water Disputes

Groundwater is one of the most important water resources of Iran.  One of the best methods of supplying water is digging qanats (subterranean canals),[33] a practice that researchers consider was developed by Iranians about three thousand years ago.  The main source of qanat water is precipitation, which normally amounts to 252 millimeters or 413 billion cubic meters annually.[34]  In regard to surface water, any disputes over priority of use, quality, and quantity of water, as well as conflicts that cause delays in supplying, distributing, and consuming water should be settled in an arbitration committee by the water masters and chief water masters.  However, if the disputes continue even after arbitration, the Director of the region or Manager of the district, as the case may be, should intervene and investigate the matter, and then give his recommendation.[35]

Utilization of the underground water resources through the drilling of any type of well or qanat anywhere in the country should be carried out with the permission of the Ministry of Energy, except in those cases where the drilling of such wells results in the depletion or drying up of the water in an adjacent well and/or qanat.[36] 

E.  Ownership of Water Sources

Based on the Nationalization of Water Resources Act (1968), the development of water resources was to be supervised and controlled by the Ministry of Water and Power.[37]  Under the traditional irrigation systems, farmers receive their share of water based on their water rights, usually in proportion to the land area.[38]  This right to water use is usually measured based on the water delivery time.  The water rights are attached to the land, and when the land is sold, the water rights are also transferred to the new owner.  Water rights can be rented or traded.  Based on the Civil Code of Iran, groundwater is mainly private property and traded between farmers.[39]  Wells can be sold with or without the land.  Qanats have shared ownerships.[40]  Those who have built a qanat or participate in its maintenance are entitled to use its water.[41]  For example, the oldest water rights legislation in the country is about how to use and divide qanat water among farmers.

F.  Conclusion

Iran is an arid country and undertakes significant conservation efforts focused primarily on information and education programs.[42]  Conservation is achieved through a combination of efforts that includes legislation, pricing, incentives, coalition building, research, and education.

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Prepared by Sanaz Alasti
Law Library Scholar in Residence
October 2013

[1] FAO Country Profiles: The Islamic Republic of Iran – Agricultural Sector, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), &subject=4 (last visited Aug. 8, 2013).

[2] National Research Council of the National Academies, Water Conservation, Reuse, and Recycling – Proceedings of an Iranian-American Workshop 169 (National Academies Press 2005).

[3] Id.

[4] Iran Ministry of Water and Power, Plan and Budget Organization, Document of the Third Plan, at 1 (1999).

[5] The series of national reforms and developments by Mohammad Reza Shah had come to be known as the White Revolution.

[6] N.R. Keddie, The Iranian Village Before and After Land Reform, 3 J. Contemp. Hist. 69–91 (1968).

[7] Id.

[8] O. Aresvik, The Agricultural Development of Iran (Praeger Publishers, New York/Washington, 1976).

[9] Bijan Khajehpour, Iran’s Needs for Agricultural Reform, Al-Monitor (July 9, 2013), com/pulse/originals/2013/07/iranian-president-rouhani-should-promote-agricultural-reform.html#ixzz2ZoCQ75yr.

[10] Abraham M. Hirsch, Water Legislation in the Middle East, 8 Am. J. Comp. L. 168–86 (Spring 1959).

[11] Qanun-e Asasi-e Jumhuri-e Islami-e Iran [Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran] 1358 [1980] art. 44.

[12] Law of Proper Use of Water Resources of 1982.

[13] Id. art. 21.

[14] Id. art. 19.

[15] Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran art. 45.

[16] National Research Council, supra note 2, at 96.

[17] Law of Proper Use of Water Resources of 1982 art. 2.

[18] The Nationalization of Water Resources Act of 1968 art. 1.

[19] Hirsch, supra note 10, at 168–86.

[20] FAO Country Profiles, supra note 1.

[21] Law for the Formation of Farm Corporations of 16 January 1968, Loh-e Qanun (Majlis Research Center CD-ROM, undated).

[22] Law for the Establishment of Companies for the Development and Utilization of Lands Downstream from Dams of 27 May 1968, Loh-e Qanun (Majlis Research Center CD-ROM, undated).

[23] Id.

[24] National Research Council, supra note 2, at 253.

[25] Id. at 259.

[26] FAO, Irrigation in the Middle East Region in Figures – Aquastat Survey – 2008 195 (FAO Water Reports # 34, Rome, 2008),

[27] Law for Environmental Protection and Development of 18 June 1974, amended 1990, arts. 2, 6.

[28] This decree was passed by Iran’s Expediency Council in March 2013.

[29] Khajehpour, supra note 9.

[30] Nationalization of Water Resources Act of 1968 art. 10.

[31] Id. art. 13.

[32] Id. art. 14.

[33] A qanat initially consists of a well dug in a mountainside to reach the groundwater stored there.  An underground tunnel is then dug from this point, directing the water to the village.

[34] National Research Council, supra note 2, at 107.

[35] Nationalization of Water Resources Act of 1968 art. 46.

[36] Law of Proper Use of Water Resources of 1982 art. 3.

[37] Nationalization of Water Resources Act of 1968 art. 1.

[38] Qanun-e Madani [Civil Code] Tehran 1314 [1935] art. 134.

[39] Id. art. 160.

[40] Id.

[41] FAO, supra note 1.

[42] Id.

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Last Updated: 12/31/2020