The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

June 2018, No. 87

Special Report

Community-Based Rainwater Harvesting and Tree Planting

a Cost Effective Water Solution for Iran

Mohammad Ali Farzin, Development Economist

Water availability is a major global development priority, and increasingly becoming critical. Iran is also facing increasing water demand due to a growing economy and population – with subsequent water shortages. The agriculture sector, in particular, will get less water than it demands. Climate change is not helping either, as temperatures are rising and precipitation is falling. Iran is considered a semi-arid zone: average annual rainfall is 250 mm, a third of the global, and with 1.62 million kilometers land area, it has 405 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water available per annum. Actual usage is estimated at around 93 bcm of water, much of it met from the river and groundwater systems, and also dams.

Approximately 30% of this water is lost through various systems leakages and transpiration; the river ecosystems and groundwater resources are under stress. A large amount of water still remains, nevertheless, for retention and capture to increase water availability: as rain, run-off from small catchments, flood waters of major rivers and as aquifer storage. These have potential for “integrated” water solutions. Reuse of waste water is also possible, as little reuse is currently taking place in Iran.

But how to do all of this? This article highlights some possibilities for Iran for rainwater harvesting – a small-scale, cost effective solution which also provides significant employment, income and multiplier synergy effects which can have development outcomes too. 

Global Scenarios

Most of the world’s water is in oceans. Only about 2% is fresh water that can be used, while people have access to less than 1% of the world’s fresh water, which is accumulated in lakes, rivers, wetlands and shallow ground aquifers. Most of the fresh water (75%) is actually frozen in polar ice caps, and much of the rest is present as soil moisture or lies deep in the ground.

Generally, there is only one source of fresh water and that is precipitation (rainfall); while a major reason for the growing over-exploitation of water resources is the current stress on river water and groundwater to the neglect of rainwater and floodwater.

Forests have many functions and are important for water: a main source of fresh water which many people rely on; providing renewable water supplies to 75% of the global population. Forests also regulate the flow of water in rivers and streams; contribute to water availability (even during dry seasons); play a crucial role in the water cycle, especially as they slow down water flow and filter the water entering rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater; and transpire water into the atmosphere, contributing to the formation of clouds and rain. More than one third of world’s largest cities actually rely on forests for their drinking water, home to 250 million people (including Tokyo, Japan and Barcelona, Spain).

Water availability affects development, while increases in population along with ongoing processes of globalization, industrialisation, urbanisation and agricultural modernisation are leading to both increasing demand and decreasing supply of freshwater. According to UN agencies, these will drive global water demand up by 40% in the next 20 years; world’s fresh water demand is expected to grow by 2% per annum over the coming decades; industrial water demand in particular is expected to grow much faster (circa 4%). If no changes are made to water use, global demand will outpace supply by 35% in twenty years time. An imbalance impossible for survival.

Water shortage is, therefore, becoming a critical risk, especially as the global water endowment and entire ecological systems balance can become unstable through human intervention, mis-management and climate change – and potential for future conflict. Crisis factors include: low rainfall; over exploitation of water resources; decreased accessibility to clean water; increased competition for water resources; agricultural production water use inefficiency and mismanagement; overuse of surface water resources and dam constructions; inappropriate irrigation and water management approaches; high exploitation of ground water and changes in water consumption patterns – all costly for any country. Climate change generally intensifies such problems. The combined effect of these and intensified drought cycles can result in a critical water stress situation.


Deforestation is now also taking place everywhere in the world and must be taken seriously. Resulting in water crisis, leading to increased flooding, more flow of surface water and drought risk. The result is soil erosion and increased sedimentation of water, reduced groundwater recharge ability and reduction in amount of water transpired into the air that contributes to rainmaking. The sustainability issues are significant.

According to UN agency estimates, on average 40% of rainfall originates from evapo-transpiration from plants; for example, a large oak tree can transpire 151,000 litres a year. Forests can clean and filter water more effectively and cheaply than any man-made system: cost of water treatment in areas where watersheds have 60% forest cover is half that of systems with only 30% forest cover; and every $1 spent on protecting a forest watershed can save between $8 to $20 in new water treatment and filtration facilities. Forests have significant ecosystem services value: estimated at $2,335 per hectare per annum; a wetland valued at $35,000. People also use wood-fuel from forests to boil and cook: an estimated 750 million people; while one third of households worldwide rely on wood-fuel and charcoal for cooking.

The current linear thinking about water and its engineering type solutions has also made water polluted and wasted as it travels through the water infrastructure and use system. Water from many industrial processes still cannot be used for agriculture or urban use; the usability of water is lost as the quality deteriorates quickly; waste water from factories is polluted for any form of reuse, and without treatment these factories merely discharge the waste water and use fresh water for their production.

All very inefficient. In the absence of effective mechanisms to regulate and produce water, these are a real problem. The challenge is to balance increasing water demand with the diminishing supply How to resolve? By “catching the water where it falls”. Major new institutional, policy and technological initiatives are, however, required to ensure an efficient, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable management of water resources through “catching the water where it falls”. It does provide, however, the opportunity for a whole new development field which can also generate significant technologies and employment.

Iran’s Sustainable Development Process

Iran’s current economic growth process, and the focused economic growth policy approach in particular, however, are still not sufficiently linked up in planning terms with natural resources specifics and initial local conditions, in order to help enough to mitigate the sustainability issue (or the forthcoming adverse climatic conditions). The Government is seeking such alternative programme based solutions, though, but the conventional wealth creation approach is still dominant.

Looking at the long term (thirty year) average annual growth and development trends is indicative of the challenges. Economic GDP growth has been around 4% on average per annum; carbon di-oxide (CO2) growth about 5%; employment growth above 2%; human development (the HDI index) growth about 1.6% per annum. The difference in the four average growth rates, over a long period of time, indicate that the development approach has been not only capital intensive but excessively industrial – that is, CO2 growth is consistently more than GDP growth which is more than employment growth and human capital growth. A combination pressurizing the natural and ecological resource base, while not sufficiently contributing to create long-term human capability to meet the sustainability challenge. A sustainable approach would require more human development growth per annum, more employment, higher economic GDP growth and less CO2 growth – in that order.

The above suggests a need also for change in economic technique and approach: from a capital intensive and hard tech one to less of both; through methods that can at the same time ensure employment and well-being for all and restore the resource base through that new employment. Employment that is based on micro and small social enterprise, and through community-based actions that both ensure ecological restoration and value added growth at the same time. That is, through green jobs and more labour intensive integrated natural resource management INRM approaches that can provide alternative livelihoods.

In the current trend, the ability of Iran’s natural resources capacity to sustain both economy and population will remain under stress. Further adverse impact will occur as climatic trends start to play. The Government of Iran’s Five Year Development Plan processes usually intends to achieve high growth rates; currently 8% GDP growth per year, as also set in the last few Plans; which would need significant investment; while some Plans have also focused on long term sustainability; the 6th Plan has both written in it; and the new “economic resistance” approach attempts to utilize more local involvement and employment alongside more domestic investment absorption.

These combined high growth and sustainability criteria would be possible only once the investments actually undertaken also adopt both sustainable criteria (for ecological restoration and resource base improvement) and job creation criteria (e.g. in green job type activities that have both value added and employment) in order to create new demand for the new goods that are to be produced domestically. So that, subsequently, a larger proportion of GDP is made sustainable (and green), and along with value added growth, and to ensure socio-economic-ecological resilience. Otherwise it would be the same story.

Out of a population of 80 million people living in Iran, about 23 million or so live in rural areas, many below a relative minimum income line and some with lack of access to various resources, services and information – including irrigation water to ensure sustained agricultural production. Iran’s rural growth and development path is naturally dominated by water resource related and climatic factors: surface climatic conditions of Iran are semi-arid, with low average annual rainfall of 250 mm: affecting agriculture and food output. Evaporation is high, as a quarter of Iran’s lands are hot desert and second grade rangeland.

The total water available of 405 bcm per annum is due to precipitation in six main regional water basins, with a total area of 1.62 million kilometers: the Caspian Sea basin (with 10.7% of land area ; and 18.1% of rain fall); Persian Gulf and Oman Sea basin (26.1% land ; 38.8% rain); Lake Urumieh basin (3.1% land ;  4.3% rain); Central Plateau basin (50.8% land ; 33.4% rain); Eastern Border basin (6.3% land ; 2.6% rain); and the Qareh Qum basin (2.7% land area ; 2.4% rainfall). The Central Plateau basin which is half of Iran’s total land area has much less rain than the average – at 164 mm. While half of this Central Plateau is poor rangeland and hot desert and rainfall in them is well under 100 mm per annum – insufficient to sustainably hold populations and produce food, unless something more organized is done about it. Of the total 405 bcm of water, the renewable extractable water per annum is circa 130 bcm, while actual extracted water resources are estimated at only 93 bcm of which: drinking water 6 bcm (about 7%); agriculture 86 bcm (92%); and, industry 1 bcm (over 1%).

Agriculture is, therefore, usually blamed for the water problem – as it consumes most of the extracted water. Of the 1.62 million kilometers, or 162 million hectares of land in Iran only 13 million hectares or so are in use each year for agriculture and horticulture, and to support food security. The rest is 14 million hectares or so of forest, 28 relatively okay rangeland, of which 7 is quite good, and 56 poor quality rangeland, while 33 million hectares is hot desert.

Iran’s water supply, meanwhile, has declined from an estimated circa 7,000 cubic meters per capita of annual water available in the late 1950’s, to the 1,600 cm/cap/annum or so that we have today (i.e. 130 bcm/80 million people), and probably going down to 1,000 in fifteen/twenty years time if the heat wave continues and population rises. While some predications for Iran are more heat and much less rainfall in the next thirty years.

Global consensus thinking suggests that below 1,000 cm/cap/annum is a “water scarcity” red line and critical threshold – as the below map indicates.

With Iran being semi-arid, only less than 10% of the country’s lands are forest and woodland. With less forest now than five decades ago, and given the trends in aridity, there may be less forest, less agricultural land and more desert area available over the next twenty or so years: the risk of loss being accentuated by tree cutting for lumber and fuel-wood use, for conversion into housing development and general encroachment from rangeland and grazing. Requiring policy approaches beyond just water control, but also more tree planting to ensure moisture and coolness (as well as other outcomes including prevention of migration).

Most of Iran’s near 23 million rural people benefit directly from the 14 million hectares of forest and general woodland. As mentioned above, capital values in the sector suggest estimates of eco-system services values for forests of around $2,335 per hectare of forest per annum1. That indicates a capital value of more than $33 billion for the total 14 million hectares in Iran (an overestimate perhaps, as only half the 14 million is considered true full forest). Main forests in Iran include the Caspian Sea basin Hyrcanian forest and the Zagross mountain range. The magnificent forest of the Caspian area, of the northern Alborz mountain, cover 2 million hectares2. The western Zagros mountain range accounts for about 40% of Iran’s forests; however, much is now being lost to grazing land conversion and fuel-wood use. In the desert and semi-desert areas of Iran the vegetation cover is mainly small tress, shrub and bush, as extensive rangeland and plain.

The possibility exists, given climate and human intervention, that perhaps desertification will increasingly encroach further into useful forest, woodland, food-land and rangeland. By how much, however, is difficult to tell. Already the drying of the Zayandehrood in Isfahan, Urumieh Lake in Azerbaijan and Hamoun Wetland are examples affecting water resource supply and natural ecosystems. Climate factors are at play too: over the last five decades mean precipitation in the Urumieh Basin has decreased (estimated probably by circa 9%) and average maximum temperature has increased (estimated by circa 0.8°C) there. Wetlands are, of course, highly fragile generally and prone to crisis.

Such combined results of population, natural resources and climatic trends will subsequently impact on our children, food security, ability to produce economic value added and internal population movements (and migrations): problems on the horizon, and which are being thought about by the Government. The sole economic growth and wealth generation approach, and a large scale capital-intensive one at that, however, and without due consideration to the resource base and local people’s capability, will remain a real challenge creating further complications - unless transformed into something more sustainable and inclusive growth oriented along with less overhead costs and more labour-intensitity.

In order to overcome, combined social-economic-ecological thinking and planning is required; with rural-agricultural development processes linked to both the water cycle and the ecological base; water supply, demand and behaviour processes improved; new integrated water solution system solutions imposed; local people and communities enabled to become further involved in the ecological restoration and natural resource base process; techniques such as rainwater harvesting adopted broadly and upscaled in every possible way. To ensure support for both economic growth and sustainable development processes.

Sustainable Integrated Natural Resources Management (INRM)

The water system is a balance between supply and demand. A water shortage is demand which cannot be met by available fresh water supply; the impact on economic activities and social capacity can then be significant. Primarily, water demand has to be reduced, requiring a behavioural change: stopping leakages; using more water efficient appliances, processes and techniques. The retention of water is also primary and crucial, through: rain water harvesting; enhancing top soil water retention; aquifer storage and recovery; and retention in lakes and wetlands. Water can also be reused: through ecological treatment and reuse of waste water, industrial waste water and sewage.

Two major trends in this are apparent worldwide. Firstly, the State has emerged as major provider of water, replacing communities and households who were original primary units for provision and management of water. Second, a growing reliance has occurred for use of surface river and groundwater, with earlier reliance on rainwater and floodwater declining, even though rainwater and floodwater are available in greater abundance than river water or groundwater.

The ideal approach to this issue is integrated natural resources management (INRM) which  takes a system-wide (integration) view to water programming and other natural resources (including human): for measures to improve a region’s water balance, generate savings and mitigate water shortages, and ranging from reducing water demand to increasing water availability through water retention (and reuse) measures. INRM programming enables quantifying the potential of the entire water supply chain and the main water users; along with scenario analysis of future social, economic and environmental developments and their inter-linkages; of how much and what kind of sustainable activity and production is required; and how economic activity and investment practice should take shape to help ensure wealth (GDP) creation and also keep ecology stable in twenty years time.

INRM is a programme based approach to problem solving – and is results based. Or should be! It requires good planning, standards setting, combined institutional and private cooperation mechanisms, new green technology methods and better investment quality – even trade and SME systems development (as social enterprise). This can then help mitigate such water challenges. But programme based perspective requires the conditions that ensure wholistic, integrated and inter-sector approaches with the requisite institutions3. Otherwise it’s the same story.

Such INRM based water resources management approaches should determine the basis for any development policy, for improved overall performance in the water sector. Applying new approaches requires a transformative change – away from current, dominant linear (cum basic engineering) views of water systems. Towards an integrated (non-linear) water systems solution approaches. Along with appropriate water governance, as current global institutions (their performance, inter-relationships, approach to formulation of policy, etc.) are a constraint to such a new approach.

No doubt the entire water cycle, from water supply, demand and behaviour has to be improved, before a new integrated water system solution can be as effective as planned by institutions, whom themselves must also change. Of course, the subject itself is complex – but there is potential room for improvement. Improved policy and practice needs to be integrated to overcome such complexity, and ensure convergence. Constraints can be taken into account when designing new water systems; so that full potential of an integrated system to reduce water stress can be established and benefit people, businesses and the environment. 

There are simple, local-based integrated solutions, which can overcome constraints and remain low cost and sustainable. One, certainly, is the improved retention of water through rain water harvesting. This is an INRM approach, in principle, targeted at the local level and which can overcome the possible instability problems of ecological system nature. Rainwater harvesting captures rain and is the art and science of collecting water where it falls; also capturing the run-off in a village or a town. People have been doing this throughout history. It could meet freshwater needs adequately, equitably and sustainably; once modernised with help of technology and when mainstreamed into policy. But it is a decentralized approach, requiring peoples participation and public-private-community partnerships PPP.

Rain water harvesting can be undertaken in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas through: gully plugs; contour bunding; check dams; percolation tanks; recharge shafts; dug well recharges; sub surface dykes; etc. In urban areas: recharge pits; recharge trenches; tube wells; recharge wells; etc. The variations and combinations are a lot. For example, the contour bund has been used in Iran, as has the crescent bund which retains water in gradients where the seedlings and plants are. One can see this in many places in Iran where Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Organisation (FRWO) has been active. Fortunately, in Iran the FRWO has adopted the general rainwater harvesting approach. It has to expand and up-scale it significantly, requiring both central Government budgets and also community-based resources.

Appropriate INRM policies for rainwater harvesting have many benefits: they cost-effectively alleviate water shortage and its declining quality; every household in the local community becomes involved in the provision of water and in the protection of water sources; water becomes the subject of people’s own motivation; relationships between people, economy and environment are re-established; urban and rural communities become catalysts for development and sustainability; while the Government is enabled to play the critical supportive role in encouraging equity and sustainability in the use of water and other resources. Rain water harvesting enables a role for everybody with respect to water – a public-private-community partnership PPP. This process can also ensure own financial resources for the job. And result in sustainable economic development outcomes.

There is always some unwillingness for a programme perspective, however. It is considered difficult, costly, government expansive and an interference in market processes (which require private individuals to have the motivation to find solutions themselves). That would make good sense, but only when all is well in a society (and “trickle down” effects are actually working). When all is not well, and the economy is ill, and social capital is not functioning, it does not make sense to reject programme type approaches. In stagnation and stag-flation contexts especially; and when the ecology is critically imbalanced.

Further, programming needs specific measures and targets – both physical and monetary. The current economics perspective is in terms of money, is individual based and is inappropriate for a biomass based agricultural economy that is engrossed in sustainability issues and is also functioning around subsistence levels (75% of Iran’s farmers are small scale). A multi-dimensional programme approach is required. One that fully links (integrates) together water development, rural development, economic growth and the natural resources base.

The new global programming approach stresses reducing demand in agriculture which is the largest water user (globally accounts for 66% of water demand) – and more retention locally. In Iran reduction of agriculture demand is more crucial as 92% of extracted water takes place in this sector. It will require: 

·         changing general crop production and consumption patterns;

·         improving water efficiency of existing crops (changes and refinements in crop pattern) and changes to more water efficient crops (virtual water calculations);

·         upstream investment in natural infrastructure for retention such as in lakes, wetlands and forestry projects (enabling water holding for long periods);

·         water storage projects such as water reservoirs or rainwater harvesting;

·         underground aquifer storage and recovery activities;

·         more efficient irrigation methods (e.g. drip irrigation);

·         enhancing top soil water retention (agriculture needing less irrigation water);

·         using saline water techniques for irrigation purposes. 

Water used for irrigation also enters back into the ground (through natural drainage) thereby adding to ground water resources; ground water resources are important as artificial ground water recharge measures are crucial to ensure sustainable water table levels are kept. Serious issues also in Iran: any of its large fertile plains (e.g. the Sistan plain) can, should or have, gone through this process of development of drainage infrastructure to retain more water (once complementary deep wells and aquifers are utilized also).

There are, of course, other measures that can substantially reduce water shortage per se: desalination plants, the building of large water reservoirs through dams, or connecting water basins with each other. However, such engineering measures are costly and capital intensive, and have impact on the local environment, on society, in reducing land productivity, and on habitats perhaps irreversibly. Creating serious problems up and down stream, or transfering problems from one basin to another. They alone may not be able to fully eliminate water shortages in climate change scenarios, in different settings and contexts; and would need significant top-down governance mechanisms.

In aiming to reduce and retain water sustainably a number of softer development type approaches are also possible. One solution is the bottom-up “community” perspective – to enable rain water harvesting, community based forestry and INRM. Although the cost of forest development is usually significant, experience indicates that community-based approaches are cost effective for water retention, green rehabilitation and rural development purposes (usually at a quarter to a third cost of prevailing contractual based approaches).

Local Community-Based Systems Solutions

Environmental and ecological degradation have serious impact on the lives of rural people and on their poverty levels. In Iran, rural small farmer households (SFH) largely live within a biomass based local economy that is above subsistence. The SFH are a great potential for growth and development in Iran: nearly 3 million such land owners, making up 80% of rural land ownership; with a total population of around 16 million including families; working on less than 5 hectares of land area (average of 2 hectares); covering a total area of 3 million hectares (out of a total of 17 million); and with a possible total income of about 70,000 billion Rials (out of a total rural GDP of about 800,000 billion Rials).

Their products are obtained from plants and animals (food, fruit, beverages, fuel, animal feed, wood, medicinal herbs, wool) and are processed into goods for sale (dairy products, dried fruit, essential oils, carpets and rugs, cloth, handicrafts, etc). Lack of such natural biomass resources lead to “sustainable poverty” - inability to meet rural basic needs. Lack of water may be the trigger for poverty.

Over the last seventy years increasingly market and money dimensions have entered into their lives and now urban goods and services have taken an even more important role and value in rural society. They are currently in a lagging situation economically, however. Once SFH are supported directly, with specific and focused support programmes and institutions, their GDP can actually increase significantly and contribute to full rural employment – and if upscaled well can perhaps prompt up to an additional 1% growth in national GDP. This kind of outcome has been noted in many developing countries with such integrated programmes (OTOP in Thailand; INREGA in India; BOLSA in Brazil; etc). But this outcome would require more SFH targeted human resource investments, more corporate social responsibility in the sector, more community participation by SFH in forest development and rangeland rehabilitation, including mobilization for water systems solutions and ecological restoration, new institutional mechanisms with more combined PPP, a sensitivity to the ability of small-scale networks synergy to result in large scale outcomes, etc.

Once water system solutions, ecological restoration and economic activities are integrated (e.g. rainwater harvesting development in a region) and also undertaken by local communities and SFH themselves, as cooperative and PPP type activities, they reduce poverty, regenerate local biomass and improve productivity. What is to be done more specifically? Iranian low-income rural people, small land holders and SFH have been involved in forest development and wood products for thousands of years by developing tree plantations, rehabilitating deserts, building qanat systems, building wood instruments and handicraft, etc. Tree planting also had a religious and social aspect. One can further indicate the linkage in capability for forest development and the wood industry. These strengths make new development strategy easier to plan and implement; a useful local capacity for national development planners to consider seriously for a local community (SFH) based integrated forestry and rain water harvesting approach.

Once these are complemented by targeted zoning and general rural human capabilities development approaches, a sustainable solution for water stress factors could be provided – a bottom-up approach to integrated water systems solutions.

Currently, as natural resources laws, water shortage, and costs of irrigation constrain private tree planting in Iran’s arid and semi-arid zone, the Government directly or indirectly undertakes the required basic natural capital, infrastructure and support development. It does so mainly through licenses, credits and extension services provision. Iran’s forest conservation and reforestation programme is well established and significant4, although it can be scaled up for long term sustainability.

The national institutions that are currently directly active in this chain of requirements, and need to take up this responsibility include: the FRWO, of the Ministry of Jihad Agriculture (MOJA) which has oversight of the forest, range and watershed sector; the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Trade (MMIT) that is responsible for industry, and gives out licenses and sets various duties for wood production (imports, exports, sales tariff/prices on solid wood products, particleboard/chipboard, fiberboard, plywood and wood-handicrafts); and the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare (MCLW) for local community socio-economic capacity development purposes.

Forest planting, irrigation support, utilization levels for timber harvesting, rehabilitating logged areas and replanting are undertaken by the national authorities, specifically the FRWO. According to formal statistics5, by 2011: up to 10% of Iran’s 14 million hectare of forests were protected; more than 25,000 hectares of land was reforested; significant efforts were made to rehabilitate rangeland and control desertification – 42,000 hectares of water harvesting and above 10,000 hectares of new plantations to prevent desert encroachment; and over one million hectares were directly under watershed management activities. FRWO is also giving more special attention to rural development with community participation in harvesting and reforestation activities, with the aim of meeting both commercial needs for wood while offering environmental protection for the. By 2010 an estimated 2.5 million hectares of natural resource (commons) areas plantations had been developed in Iran through FRWO.

MOJA and FRWO have increasingly utilized the potential strength of the SFH community – and this can be increased significantly. Programmes that mobilise, motivate and support; using green technology and planning approaches; and the “zoning” of green belts that sustain tree planting, moisture, wood industry development, food production and populations. Much of this can be achieved through locally generated support systems for various local activities, requiring a national development strategy and new programme for rural sustainability.

Local population groups and communities – especially SFH – can be enabled and empowered to raise their combined activity levels in tree planting, wood cutting and water harvesting towards integrated water solution outcomes that generate more income and employment. Standards to ensure sustainability can be pre-set: for example, ensure that percentage of trees planted (reforestation) is always more than actual tree cutting and capital destruction for value added (income) purposes6; or that water harvesting be done in particular ways (in fact standard operating procedures are available). These can be programmed for good income generation to create monetary incentive.

The implementation of such human and social capital investments and approaches at the community level, in the forest and wood sectors, can conjointly ensure more water saving and raise local green GDP. This is the indicator that needs to rise for sustainability.

There are currently many challenges to such a solution, however: as SFH are in poverty traps; local communities are prevented by law in becoming excessively involved in natural resources; forest use is insufficiently organized for sustainable development purposes; the local wood industry and handicrafts sector is fragmented or weak; standards for social enterprise type green products are missing; institutional mechanisms and local PPP process need significant improvement; and there is no guaranteed procurement (as an institutional demand) for SFH processed products and in rural areas so as to ensure small-scale local economic development and higher local GDP outcomes (which would also benefit the national GDP and funds flow system).

In such a scenario, local community water management and rainwater harvesting can prove to be highly useful activities to initiate restoration of both the ecological and economic base in rural areas: a fundamental change in perspective in water management strategies, and towards integrated community-based water solutions. A programme approach is required – as obviously one can’t leave this to “market forces” and private action alone. 

Rainwater Harvesting

Water is vital for survival, yet natural and human interventions affect local hydrological regimes and degrade lands which the rural economy is dependent on. Rural people need water for domestic use, livestock use, small-scale irrigation, home-based processing activities and other artisanal and industrial applications.

Supporting people to help themselves by improving their local natural resource base is a viable and effective strategy for both growth and poverty alleviation. Ecological restoration is possible, by using integrated water systems solutions, which also help rural economic growth, and alleviate SFH poverty7. Though substantial investments are being made in exploiting river and groundwater resources to support large scale irrigation systems and supply of water to urban centres, these systems coverage could be significantly improved for poor rural people living in degraded or low quality lands who need water-based interventions to restore their rural ecology and get out of their poverty trap.

Rainwater harvesting is a good solution in rural areas: an integral part of INRM activities in watershed basins, whose objective would be to improve total biomass output. Theoretically, the potential is enormous. Rainwater harvesting involves people and society – in making water management the business of all. Reducing current demand on government institutions and subsidies, helping everyone internalise the full costs of water requirements, and encouraging people to be more conserving in their water demand.

Local community-based rainwater harvesting systems have many benefits: communities and households develop their own water supply systems: they take better care of their operation and maintenance; water is used more efficiently instead of being wasted; micro savings and local resource mobilization is undertaken; reduced pressure on the State to provide financial resources needed for water supply; and a sense of greater ownership over water projects by local’s reduces misallocations of funds.

Rainwater harvesting provides both drinking and irrigation water, and can be undertaken in a variety of ways:  

·         capturing runoff from local catchments;

·         capturing seasonal floodwaters from local streams;

·         capturing runoff from rooftops;

·         conserving water through watershed management (dykes; small dams; bunds; crescents; etc);

·         increasing groundwater recharge;

·         control by reducing storm-water discharges;

·         control of rural and urban floods;

·         control overload of sewage treatment plants;

·         reduce seawater inflow into coastal areas. 

Example: for groundwater recharge areas where: ground water levels are declining due to over-exploitation; substantial part of the aquifer already de-saturated (i.e. regeneration of water in wells and hand pumps is slow after water withdrawl); availability of water from wells and hand pumps is inadequate during bad months; ground water quality is poor and there are no alternative water sources.

Rain appropriately captured from 10% of Iran’s lands can probably provide its population of 80 million with probably 40 bcm/annum. There is no village which cannot meet its own drinking water needs through rainwater harvesting – even in low rainfall areas. Theoretically, in an arid area with annual rainfall level of 100 mm (per square meter), one hectare of land can theoretically capture as much as 10,000 cubic meter of water (or ten times the stress threshold amount). In more densely populated areas with usually more periphery or urban built-up area (including roof-tops) improved runoff efficiency exists and less land area is required to capture the same amount of rainwater. A synergetic multiplier that can be utilized easily.

A new paradigm and an enabling programme environment. One that actually deals with the ecological nature of rural vulnerability. Such solutions incorporate the following variables: specific dynamics of the regional ecological system; people involved in the management operation and maintain of the resource; local “water user groups”, cooperatives and associations; time taken to transform an ecologically devastated rural area; fragility of new natural assets created; pre-set sustainability standards; and adoption of micro and social enterprise based approaches.

The role of Government must change in this approach: empower communities; support ecological restoration structures; establish laws supporting community effort. Sole bureaucratic resource management systems have also proven cost-ineffective, and less relevant in a complex world. Global examples of participatory programmes for rainwater harvesting based economic development are positive. The new wealth generated and re-invested leads to a positive cyclic system of sustainable growth; while good management of its natural resource base becomes ingrained in local communities. More equitable organizational arrangements and water delivery are noted when participatory approaches are undertaken. The role of government agencies always remain, nevertheless. Building support from policymakers, farmers and other water users is essential for successful participatory projects and involves ensuring incentives relevant to each group.

Such approaches must, therefore, be preceded by measures to socially mobilise communities to ensure cooperative work so benefits of the new natural resources created are fairly shared and confidence/incentive for task sharing generated. As the management and use of the local rain water capacity is undertaken by community-based decision-making systems and institutions, and enabling legal and financial measures which promote community work, the challenge lies in empowering and mobilising the labour of the SFH. The integration of the community itself is important: as if only a few in the community are active, against the wishes of the rest, they will not succeed. All will protect a common (water) resource jointly only if all of them know that they will benefit from the resource fairly. Equity and fairness is a pre-condition for common effort. The local word ejma (consensus) well indicates this.

They would need both organization and incentive: community-based participatory systems leaders be from the community; facilitators and specialists undertake community mobilization and catalyse; appropriate incentives implemented for farmers to actively support water user groups and associations which are essential channels for participation; local traditions, skill and culture be utilised. The entire community is then involved in protection and management. Every village household can be actively involved to take shared decisions of common interest to the village.

Usually each village has an institution of its own which brings its members together to discuss, decide, manage and resolve disputes regarding common resources and issues. The institution must work transparently in decision-making in order to ensure cooperation and discipline within the group. Open village forums are more transparent and usually work well to bring about good natural resource management and to sort out complex internal community differences. Even in different contexts where differences and inequality is significant. The resolution of internal village conflicts and coordination are easier because of the transparency, accountability and confidence involved in open village meetings. In INRM and ecological regeneration it is essential that all groups (land owners, SFH, landless, workers and women) play an important role in the affairs of the village community.

The Required Policy and Programme Dimension

Rural development efforts conventionally focus on modernized agriculture dimensions: however, such sector based efforts can also easily be fragmented, contradictory and counter productive. Fragmented (partial) approaches do not help INRM and ecosystem planning processes. The building of small irrigation reservoirs must be complemented by appropriate land use to protect the catchment of these reservoirs. Animal husbandry and dairying operations must be complemented by increasing feed supply. Further a central organisation cannot plan for each locality: this type of planning is also best done at the local level, sub-district by sub-district; village by village – given diversity in local ecosystems (even within one local ecosystem). Villagers relate well to their immediate local ecosystem and local level planning should be participatory; while it can be supported by government bureaucracies but cannot be undertaken by them.

Efficiency, equity and sustainability are necessary pre-conditions and objectives of a new rural development process based ecological restoration policy. As mentioned, the sustainable usefulness of private natural resources is interlinked with the productivity of common property resources. In order to deal with this multi-dimensional linkage, the focus has to be on connecting, leveraging and mobilising the local community as instrumental catalysts.

Initially a local INRM action plan has to be developed: identifying private and common property resources of the locality (dahestan or bakhsh), its diverse biomass needs, water available, products and skills, the interests and requirements of different socio-economic groups, donors and supporters, local institutions, etc. To prompts a series of sustainable activities: to achieve more quantity and productivity of croplands due to availability of irrigated water; from better water conservation and ecological restoration actions, increased range and fodder production from local rangeland, and for increased production of timber from forest areas.

The indicators of local INRM and ecological system planning for biomass regeneration are:  

·         enhancement of the total natural resource base of the sub-district and village ecosystem;

·         production of basic biomass needs of the community on a priority basis;

·         equity in the distribution of biomass resources;

·         increased value added from biomass based products;

·         higher green based activity levels and employment. 

For success, programme measures are required: changes in institutional, legal and financial frameworks which prompt participatory processes; taking into account the ecological dynamics of the ecosystem in which the local community is based (i.e. the water basin dynamics); factoring socio-economic dynamics and variables involved (skills, production, types of goods, population, labour force, etc); utilising INRM technology for ecosystem-specific and socio-economic (contextual). Such a package understands traditional use of the natural resources and ecosystem of the region itself.

These programmes require standard operating procedures joint restoration, management and operation, which the government and community will have to create together. PPP management of natural resources is best undertaken when also community managed funds are available. Establishing such participatory approaches, mobilizing local communities and enabling financial resources are not without cost, but are usually offset by subsequent savings and benefits. The local level action plan should consist of a matrix of solutions which adopts the specific natural resource base of the local village/s, its diverse biomass needs and its social structure. The common resources may be managed by mobilising the local community to develop them as a social enterprise. This requires government agencies to support the approach (perhaps through changes in contracting and legislation to enable government to inter-act with local community, through guaranteed procurements, etc). In Iran is the work of FRWO with communities for INRM and rangeland rehabilitation is a good example.

Such common resources development can then easily support local rural productive activity and economic growth through the supply of more outputs, including food, fuel, feed, raw materials, wood, wool and monetary resources for development. Simultaneously, villages own saving and investment supports the ecological improvement of the common resources. A positive cyclical investment pattern is developed in the rural economy.

These activities and objectives are successive stages of ecological regeneration. Their impact on local communities gradually shows:  increasing local carrying capacity, incomes and employment, and reducing migration and peri-urban poverty. Once undertaken on large, regional scale the synergies are immense.

This general approach cannot fully eliminate water shortages or ensure complete ecological restoration, but it can reduce water shortage and save billions of cubic meters of water annually while achieving a minimal sustainable restoration process and producing more outputs and value added. Using joint community approaches along with water user groups for more rain water harvesting and efficient irrigation systems would generate the greatest potential saving in water and growth in output.

Example: Integrated Tree Planting and Targeted Zoning Approaches

The rainwater harvesting method can be utilized for focused tree planting for ecological regeneration. The need to increase forest cover and prompt cooler, moister climates is obvious. A new development approach would combine pre-planned green belt zoning and rainwater harvesting in the Iranian rangelands and valleys for producing small tress, shrub and bush species. Small tree and bush species for semi-arid rangeland have shown significant resilience in Iran, and are versatile in their income generation potential – providing fruit, gum, herbs and wood residuals that are valuable. Once planned, zoned and targeted well, the approach has advantage of generating and sustaining scale, requiring less water use, producing local value added, helping ensure local moisture and food security and stabilizing the population. Developing cooler local climates.

For example, a targeted one million hectare green zone, across a number of watersheds and Districts (in valleys), in a semi-arid zone of less than 130 mm rainfall per annum, may hold about 300 small trees per hectare (a total of 300 million trees !). This  generates moisture, more vegetation cover, less land degradation and the chance of more of both agricultural food production and livestock feed; and possible production of at least a million tons of grains, feed etc. The green zone produces both more moisture and energy: through appropriate cheap green/solar technologies easily implemented at local level (e.g. glasshouse type approaches). With a small, multi-watershed micro-climate of its own, the zone will have something that Iran will need in the future in a number of strategic locations – to keep the population stabilised.

Further, it may be linked to industrial production and markets. The wood composite manufacturing industry is an example. This industry can be involved systematically and build a number of its small capacity, green type, manufacturing plants in the designated green zones. To complement ecological regeneration activities of local communities.

The whole cost of effort kept low, through targeted planning, community participation and small, green technology type manufacturing. The cost-benefit ratio would be (roundabout)  1:3 – that is, financial investments would provide a general trebling in terms of social-economic-environment benefits8. It was estimated (by this author in 2014) that the initial cost of one hectare of tree planting and irrigation (using the above approach) would be $300 per hectare, and the setting up of small residual wood manufacturing plants at about $700 per hectare – a total of $1,000. The direct socio-economic benefits would be about $1500, and the eco-system benefits about $1500. At the 1 million hectare scale, it would initially cost at least $1 billion, and would benefit continuously at least $3 billion.

A cost minimal relative to national budget. Benefits include keeping a large rural population active and stabilized: the 1 million hectares could employee up to 300,000 people directly and indirectly; economist’s now estimate that for every $1 million invested in forest/woodland activities through community based approaches around 150 jobs may be created directly and a similar number indirectly in many other lines of related activity and derivative forest and agro industry; while if a conjunct composite wood industry is established (along with other green industries in the zone) this could possibly also produce at least 300,000 cubic meters of wood from the 300 million small trees and bush. All this means that about 1 million people (workers and families) can be kept out of rural poverty and undertake ecological regeneration.

Such zones provide a safety belt: for populations in danger of drought and famine in twenty years’ time (probably twenty million persons will be at serious risk). A number of such strategic zones, across Districts around the country, may prove useful one day. Ten such 1 million hectare special zones could produce 3 billion new trees, 10 million tons of food and feed, ten micro-climates that could be kept moist with solar technology9, and also keep ten million people in households busy and safe for a while. The total cost is no more than $10 billion (insignificant for Government over a five year period): the total annual gross benefit could be up to $30 billion if organized and maintained well.

Importantly, such an organized approach to keeping the primary resources base and ecology safe and sustainable and at the same time generate added value and benefits, will also prompt Iran going green in its GDP, while Iran’s natural capital base and ecological system will have more chance of being saved from significant depletion, destruction and less water. Such a development policy approach will also prompt capacity for use of better planning, targeting and pricing in the national institutions – and supporting an increase in our comprehensive wealth10, in the GDP and in our inter-generational well-being.  More sustainable technological and knowledge based strengths will also develop.


1. See, for example, tables in Mustafa Taheri: Techniques for Eco-system Valuation. Note that in comparison, rangeland is $550, wetland is $35,400, and agricultural land is least of all at $222.

2. The FRWO related harvesting and management programmes account for over 50% of the Hyrcanian forest area; statistics suggest production harvesting in plantation forests accounts for 5% of total; while only about 15% of this forest is fully protected from harvesting.

3. An inter-sector approach would require at least the Ministry of Interior, the Department of Environment, the Ministry of Energy, the FRWO, the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Welfare, and the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Trade - and their related institutions (such as the Agriculture Bank, the Cooperative Development Bank and the Rural Cooperatives Organisation).

4. FRWO practices in Iran are indicative. Iran is also a member of the following international treaties, which help towards our sustainable development process and conserve forest: Convention on Biological Diversity; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Kyoto Protocol; Convention to Combat Desertification; CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna); Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

5. The Statistical Centre of Iran Yearbook 2012.

6. That is to impose the famous Hicksian and Hartwick conditions: the simple condition being that if we cut 10% of the trees every year, we should at least plant 10% plus a further growth rate figure (usually population growth) to ensure sustainability; and further that the reinvestment from the value of the cut trees must at least be invested in a growth generating process that provides value of more than 10%.

7. For example, the Carbon Sequestration project of FRWO in Iran.

8. Utilizing comprehensive methods such as the Sen, Dasgupta and Marglin (1970) approach to cost benefit analysis prepared for the United Nations.

9. e.g the interesting work being done on solar tech in Sharif University of Technology;  and also the general support of the Presidency’s department of science and technology to such knowledge based developments.

10. See Partha Dasgupta’s The Welfare Economics Theory of Green National Accounts (2008) for this useful measure of comprehensive wealth and its application in development planning and economic accounting.


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  June 2018
No. 87