The Forum for Partners in Iran's Marketplace

June 2018, No. 87

Special Report


Water Rights in Iran

The rise of the glorious Persian Empire during the Achaemenid period and its exaltation during the Sassanid era and the longing of this civilization was owed to the Iranian hydrology science.

By: Dr. Aliyar Arshadi 

The study of water rights in Iran is not feasible without considering the country’s legislative history in this area as well as organizational and administrative developments. Therefore, this article has tried to attract the attention of readers to the importance of water rights and the need to pay heed to law specialty by briefly reviewing the legislative developments in the water industry and examining the country’s water resources problems.

In accordance with Article 44 of the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the economic system of the country is based on three sectors: state, cooperative, and private. Also, according to Article 45 of the said law wastelands and public wealth, abandoned or unclaimed land of deceased owners, seas, lakes, rivers, and other public bodies of water, and… are under the control of the Islamic government and it will treat them in accordance with the public interest. The first important law ratified after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1982 was that of fair distribution of water.  According to Article 21 of this law, the allocation and authorization of exploitation of public bodies of water resources for drinking, agricultural, industrial and other uses was the monopoly of the Ministry of Energy. According to Note 2 of this law, however, “the previous policy concerning management of cities’ water by local authorities” was approved and a new organization foresaw for it.

According to this note, distribution of urban water, administration of facilities, and collection and disposal of sewage within the city limits would be carried out by independent companies called city Water and Sewage Company, or another appropriate body, in which case it would work under the supervision of a council affiliated to the Municipality.

Also, the government’s macro investment in managing water resources and related facilities and the need to prevent any damage to water facilities has required enactment of penal rules and regulations to deal with violators.

Therefore, since 1968 and simultaneously with the endorsement of Nationalization of Water Resources Act, the Water and Electricity Department was authorized to file lawsuits as the private plaintiff against violators in the country’s water resources.

After the victory of the Islamic Revolution and adoption of the Islamic Penal Code, necessary provisions for prosecution and punishment of perpetrators were ratified.

More than 90% of the country’s total water has been consumed in the agricultural and industrial sectors and less than 9% of it is devoted to drinking water.

In the first stage, the legislature clearly identified ownership of waters by formulating and regulating regulations related to the correct use and exploitation of waters, and then codified criminal laws and regulations. The reason for the legislature’s attention to the issue of water is its importance in the perpetuation of human life; because after air, water is the most important element needed for the life of creatures and the health of all living things, including humans, plants, and animals depends on it.

Water covers more than three quarters of planet Earth and over 97% of these waters are in the oceans and seas. About 2% are also accumulated in the shape of ice and glaciers in Polar Regions. But, most of these waters contain salt and only one percent of all available water is fresh and usable. All the needs of human beings, plants and animals living on the land and 90% of drinking water for humans are supplied from this same amount. The Iranian people have long been aware of the value of water as an invigorating and valuable substance.

The natural need of mankind to water, the geographical location of the Iranian plateau and the scarcity of this precious liquid has multiplied the value of this vital element to the Iranian people and placed it in high status.

The rise of the glorious Persian Empire during the Achaemenid period and its exaltation during the Sassanid era and the longing of this civilization was owed to the Iranian hydrology science.

Stones and tablets from the ancient Persia indicate that the people of Iran brought the underground water by digging long and very deep aqueducts and supplied it to villages and cities. The total length of Iranian aqueducts is more than 400 thousand kilometers (more than the distance from the Earth to the Moon) and the Gonabad Aqueduct, with a length of thirty-three kilometers and also wells with a depth of more than 300 meters, at regular intervals of 50 meters from the Achaemenid period is a unique masterpiece throughout the world. Currently, according to the latest figures released by the Water Resources Management Company, there are 37,000 aqueducts in the country, which totally drain more than 7 billion cubic meters of underground waters.

During the last century, a series of basic principles has always been adhered to and taken into account in some way in the organization of water management structure of the country.

These basic principles include observing the basic element of integrity and unity of water resources management in all water management processes, including planning, design, implementation and operation and comparing the organizational system of water management with the natural geography and hydrology system, or in other words, the formulation of a water management structure based on the structure of the natural watersheds, which is one of the main features and principles of water management.

In one of its reports, the water statistics journal states that the management organization in Iran in the last century has undergone four distinct steps as follows:

Initial stage (1926/7–1961/2): This phase began around 1305 (1926/7), with a population of 11 million people, and covers until 1340 (1961/2). At the early stage of this period and before that, the water sector had no place in terms of organization and planning, and the landowners addressed the issues of local water management within the framework of feudalism.

The capacity of regulatory water of the commissioned dams at the beginning of the Revolution was 14 billion and 609 million cubic meters, which has now risen to about 50 billion cubic meters.

Formation Stage (1960/1-1980/1): The country was on the brink of socioeconomic transformations, which led to the collapse of feudalism. This stage was accompanied by the expansion of the urban system and the service sector, as well as the centralization of power in the hands of the central government. In 1340 (1961/2), the Law on the Establishment of the Ministry of Water and Electricity was approved. As a result, the independent irrigation company was dissolved and its duties were defined in the new organization of the Ministry of Water and Electricity. In this new ministry, water resources management tasks, including providing water for agriculture, urban and industrial sectors, the production of hydroelectric energy and municipal sewage disposal, were found to be more specific.

Developmental Stage (1980/1-1996/7): The new management of water after the victory of the Islamic Revolution began in this period. In 1359 (1980/1), the Ministry of Energy’s regional power and utilities division was divided into two sections: water and electricity.

Coherence Stage (from 1997/8 to now): In this period, separation of the governance functions from government involvement was the goal of all the programs. Effective structural measures were taken in line with the integrated approach to water management in this period. In order to coordinate policy for activities related to supply, transfer and distribution of water in different sectors in 1380 (2001/2), the Council of Water was formed under the supervision of the President.

The adoption of the general policies of Article 44 of the Constitution in June 2005 and the subsequent adoption of the “Law on Amendment of Some Articles of the Fourth Development Plan and Implementation of General Policies of Article 44” in 2007 led to a change in the organizational structure of the Ministry of Energy and water industry.

With the implementation of this law, six specialized mother companies were established in the Ministry of Energy with three companies, namely “Construction and Supply Management for Water and Power (Satkab)” and “Iran Water Resources Management Company” as well as “Water and Sewage Company of Iran (Abfa)” were active in the water sector, and thus an organizational change was created in terms of legal and administrative relations governing the water sector of the country.

Of course, the changes made in the water industry were not limited to structural and legal changes, and the hardware aspect should be taken into consideration as well. One of these basic hardware measures was the construction of dams to control water.

The study and design of large reservoir dams began around 1327 (1948/9), and the construction of these dams began in the late 1960s. With the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the “dam construction industry” entered a new stage in development and progress. If we look at the economic infrastructure of the country 40 years after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, despite eight years of an imposed war and then a variety of Western sanctions, we can see development in the economic infrastructure of the country. The total number of dams in the country was 27 before the victory of the Revolution and reached 647 according to data released in 1390-91 (1911/12–2012/13).

The capacity of regulatory water of the commissioned dams at the beginning of the Revolution was 14 billion and 609 million cubic meters, which has now risen to about 50 billion cubic meters.

Another important issue that needs to be addressed in legal terms and has created many problems for the country in the area of ​​water is the issue of international border waters. There are a number of large rivers located in the border areas of the country (such as Atrak, Aras, Arvand and Hirmand). Legal status of how and how much of these rivers should be used relates to international law on water, including agreements between Iran and neighboring countries and international conventions. Serious attention to this issue will result in vindication of Iran’s rights.

According to the managing director of Iran’s Water Resources Management Company, there are 200,000 unlawful semi-deep wells and 110,000 deep wells in the country. Taking into consideration of nearly 400,000 authorized wells, the number of wells in the country goes beyond 700,000. However, with the approval of legislations, the Ministry of Agriculture Jihad, and the regional water organizations’ departments have managed to block unauthorized wells in the past 15 years. So far, according to statistics, more than 200,000 unauthorized wells have been blocked.

More than 90% of the country’s total water has been consumed in the agricultural and industrial sectors and less than 9% of it is devoted to drinking water. If the government promptly urges farmers to use pipelines for transfer of water from the source (the well mouth or the outlet of the aqueduct or the river) to the consumption place (agricultural land or orchard), and equip the lands and orchards with the new irrigation systems, at least more than 60 percent of water is saved (i.e. 70 billion cubic meters), and not only the current crisis caused by water shortages will be completely eliminated, but also huge surplus water resources that are more than six times the current water consumption in the household sector will be spent on developing the country.

And lastly, due to the importance of energy rights and its specialties (water rights, electricity/power rights, nuclear rights, oil and gas rights, renewable energy rights), the course syllabus of this branch of law has been designed and approved during the past three years, and God willing the country’s universities will start enrolling students at master’s level of energy law from the next academic year. And the doctoral course on water rights will be sanctioned in the near future.


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  June 2018
No. 87