Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
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Agricultural Water Management
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/agwat
Irrigation water management in Iran: Implications for water use efficiency
Bijan Nazari 3 ’*, Abdolmajid Liaghat b , Mohammad Reza Akbari', Marzieh Keshavarz
a Department of Water Sciences and Engineering, Imam Khomeini International University, Qazvin, Iran
b Department of Irrigation and Reclamation Engineering, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Tehran, Karaj, Iran
c Department of Agricultural Extension and Education, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Tehran, Karaj, Iran
fl Department of Agriculture, Payame Noor University, Tehran, Iran
Water is the most essential resource for the production of agricultural goods and services. However, high levels
of water stress and increased frequency and intensity of droughts, which are mainly driven by climate change
dynamics, have reduced the stock of freshwater resources in arid and semi-arid regions, such as Iran. Despite the
major reduction of freshwater resources, the efficiency of irrigation water use has remained very low in the
country and performance of water management schemes is far from satisfactory. Using the strengths, weak¬
nesses, opportunities and threats/political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental (SWOT/
PESTLE) analysis, this paper explores 40 internal and external factors that influence irrigation water manage¬
ment in Iran and recognizes legal, social, technological and political dynamics as the major reasons for failure of
irrigation water management in the country. A combination of the threats, opportunities, weaknesses and
strengths (TOWS) matrix and bottleneck analysis was used to suggest irrigation water management strategies
that rehabilitate the failed schemes and enhance water security in the agriculture sector. Rethinking the role of
intensified agriculture in development along with raising the awareness and attitude of decision makers towards
the risk of shortsighted water resource development plans, in addition to promoting agro-based industries and
developing integrated plans to improve water efficiency are the strategies that can contribute to a more effective
management of irrigation water in Iran.
Water is considered as one of the most critical resources for human
beings. It is vital not only for economic development, as water resources
are important to the production of agricultural and industrial goods and
services, but also it is the most essential component of the natural en¬
vironment (Chartzoulakis and Bertaki, 2015). Also, it has a significant
influence on health and nature conservation. However, only 2.7% of
global water is available as freshwater with an appropriate quality, out
of which only 30% can be applied to answer human and livestock de¬
mands (Ertek and Yilmaz, 2014).
Over the past 60 years, global demand for freshwater has increased
for many reasons including rapid population and economic growth
(Kaur et al., 2010), urbanization and industrialization (Biswas, 2010),
land use change (Sophocleous, 2004), intensive agricultural practices
(Tilman et al., 2002) and environmental degradation (Vorosmarty
et al., 2000). Furthermore, changes in the frequency, duration and
intensity of drought events have dramatically reduced the stocks of
freshwater resources in several regions (Ronco et al., 2017), especially
in the arid and semi-arid areas of Iran. For instance, the 2007-2014
drought in Iran led to the complete dry up of many internationally
renowned wetlands and lakes, significant reduction of river flows and
depletion of groundwater resources (Keshavarz and Karami, 2016).
On the other hand, by 2050, the world’s population is projected to
rise to 9.8 billion people and more than half of this population will
reside in urban areas (UN, 2017). As population and economic growth
will continue, more food will be needed to be produced in the future. It
means that water demand will grow more than 40% by 2050 (UN,
2015). Therefore, water scarcity will turn out to be a great issue in the
near future (Doungmanee, 2016). In parallel, climate change is ex¬
pected to deteriorate the situation through significant reduction of
freshwater supplies and increase of frequency, intensity and duration of
drought events (IPCC, 2014). While climate change has already affected
the temporal and spatial variability of surface and ground water
* Corresponding author at: Department of Water Sciences and Engineering, Imam Khomeini International University, Qazvin, 34148-96818, Iran.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (B. Nazari), firstname.lastname@example.org (A. Liaghat), email@example.com (M.R. Akbari), firstname.lastname@example.org (M. Keshavarz).
1 Approximately 50% more food compared to the data for 1998 (FAO, 2010).
Received 2 January 2018; Received in revised form 13 May 2018; Accepted 1 June 2018
Available online 20 July 2018
0378-3774/ © 2018 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
B. Nazari et al
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
Fig. 1. Research framework.
availability (IPCC, 2014), it is predicted that approximately two-third
of the world’s population will encounter water stress conditions in 2025
(UN Water, 2010). As the available freshwater supply will become
scarce, the demand for irrigation water will increase in the regions that
their agricultural systems heavily depend on irrigation, such as Iran.
Irrigated agriculture is currently the major user of water resources
worldwide by consuming approximately 70% of the total withdrawn
water (FAO, 2013). In developing countries, like Iran, whose rural
economies mainly depend on agricultural products, intensive irrigated
agriculture is responsible for over 90% of freshwater consumption
(Samian et al., 2015) and will continue to be the main user of renew¬
able water resources (Rosegrant et al., 2009).
Since water scarcity is a harsh reality of the agricultural sector in
arid and semi-arid regions, proper management and efficient use of
agricultural water are imperative to ensure global water safety.
However, water use efficiency of agriculture in Iran is very low. The
average efficiency of irrigation systems in this country is about 35%
(Madani, 2014), which is far lower than 70-90% irrigation system ef¬
ficiency of the most developed countries (FAO, 2016).
Therefore, conservation of water resources and affordable and sus¬
tainable use of irrigation water is required to mitigate the problem of
water shortage, in Iran. As the reduction of irrigation water supply and
demand will pose a great risk to national food security (Kang et al.,
2016) and will increase rural poverty and forced migration without
diligent planning, a consistent policy of rational irrigation development
is necessary. In this respect, improving the productivity of irrigated
agriculture has been a priority for the government of Iran since 1960
(Forouzani and Karami, 2010). Despite increasing institutional invest¬
ments in dam construction, provision of low-interest loans and im¬
plementation of various policy measures such as subsidized agricultural
water and energy use, the performance of many water management
schemes is far from satisfactory (Keshavarz et al., 2013; Madani, 2014;
Moazedi et al., 2011). The efforts of Iran for managing irrigation water
have been criticized due to the decades of disintegrated planning and
management myopia (Madani, 2014). Also, the rapid investment and
growth in the economy and infrastructure sectors without considering
the dynamic relationships between these sectors and the water, en¬
vironment and ecosystem components have been discussed (Mirchi
et al.. 2010). Moreover, the absence of an integrated view about the
human-natural system relationship is evident in Iran, which means that
the context, local realities or legitimacy are ignored during the im¬
plementation of water management practices (Hjorth and Madani,
2014). Since continuation of the current irrigation water management
trends will amplify the water crisis of Iran, it is imperative to assess site-
specific irrigation water management challenges and ensure sustainable
management of irrigation water.
Numerous studies have applied SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses,
Opportunities and Challenges) and/or PESTLE (political, economic,
social, technological, legal and environmental) analysis to different
fields of water management in both developed and developing coun¬
tries, e.g. Abdullaev et al., 2009; Bastiaanssen et al., 2007; Burt et al.,
2006; de Souza and Costa da Silva, 2014; Gallego-Ayala and Juizo,
2011; Grigg, 2005; Jang et al., 2014; Martins et al., 2013; Michailidis
et al., 2015; Molden and Oweis, 2007; Mugabi et al., 2007; Mylopoulos
et al., 2008; Panigrahi and Mohanty, 2012; Srdjevic et al., 2012; Tekken
and Kropp, 2015; Yavuz and Baycan, 2013. However, the factual status
of irrigation water management is not well documented in Iran.
Meanwhile, there is strong evidence that each country involves its
unique internal, i.e. strengths and weaknesses, and external, i.e. op¬
portunities and threats, factors that reinforce or depreciate water
management. As an outcome, conducting a research related to im¬
proving irrigation water management in the Iranian context can raise
awareness of water sustainability challenges and help decision makers
to rehabilitate the failed schemes of irrigation water security. There¬
fore, this study attempts to i) identify the strengths, weaknesses, op¬
portunities and threats of the Iranian water management practices and
policies, ii) determine the most critical factors associated with sus¬
tainable management of irrigation water and iii) propose some water
management strategies to ensure effective use of the limited water and
alleviate irrigation water shortages, in the arid and semi-arid regions of
2. Research method
A four-phase decision making framework was designed to identify
the critical internal and external factors that are associated with sus¬
tainable management of irrigation water resources in Iran and rank the
water management strategies according to their importance (Fig. 1).
The study framework is described with more details, in the subsequent
2.1. SWOT/PESTLE analysis
SWOT/PESTLE was used to investigate the current status of irriga¬
tion water management in Iran. Generally, SWOT is a list of factors that
can be used to describe present and future trends of both internal and
external environments (Yavuz and Baycan, 2013). SWOT is a con¬
venient way of conducting a situational evaluation (Wickramasinghe
and Takano, 2009) and categorizing the key internal and external fac¬
tors that are important for achieving sustainable water management.
In order to identify the preliminary strengths, weaknesses, oppor¬
tunities and threats (SWOT) of sustainable management of Iran’s irri¬
gation water systems, the literature about irrigation water management
in Iran was reviewed. In addition, three primary sources were used as a
starting point including i) an expert group meeting, ii) a focus group
discussion by policy makers, and iii) semi-structured interviews with
the main irrigation water users i.e. farmers of the Moghan plain who
hold the positions of opinion leadership (Table 1). The Moghan plain,
northwest Iran, is one of the leading agricultural regions in Iran.
The farmers, who participated in this study, were selected based on
General characteristics of the participants.
Characteristics Number Percentage of the total sample
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
their experiences in managing irrigation water systems and their fa¬
miliarity with irrigation water reality in Iran. Also, the scholars that
were experts in the field of managing water resources and policy ma¬
kers (i.e. the local and national irrigation water managers) were se¬
lected based on their in-depth knowledge of managing irrigation water
resources, professional experiences and skills, as well as individual re¬
putation in the water sector.
The information obtained from the meeting, focus group discussion,
semi-structured interviews and literature review was validated by the
academic researchers and technical experts that participated in the
meeting. Furthermore, the experts classified the SWOT factors across
six PESTLE categories, i.e. the political, economic, social, technological,
legal and environmental classes. The synergy between SWOT and
PESTLE provides deep insight and accurate understanding about the
current realities of complex irrigation water management processes in
2.2. Weighting of SWOT/PESTLE factors and assessing status of irrigation
Fig. 2. TOWS matrix.
SWOT analysis is a useful tool for evaluating the current status of
irrigation water management. However, one of its main drawbacks is
that SWOT often fails to provide information about the relative im¬
portance of the identified factors. For this reason, recently SWOT
analysis has been upgraded with the Multi-Criteria Decision Making
(MCDM) methods that prioritize SWOT factors by assigning some cor¬
responding weights to them. Assigning weights to the SWOT factors
forces the respondents to analyze the situation more precisely and
deeper than the case of standard SWOT (Yavuz and Baycan, 2013).
Using the identified SWOT/PESTLE factors, a questionnaire was
designed for the experts and policy makers in order to determine the
weights of the SWOT/ PESTLE factors. The relative importance of each
factor was determined using a 1-5 scale, where the score of 1 represents
very low importance and 5 stands for very high importance. A total of
14 questionnaires were completed by the experts and decision makers
to derive the weights of SWOT/PESTLE factors.
After determining the local weight of each SWOT factor, Eq. (1) was
developed to assess the value of each PESTLE factor and explain the
status of irrigation water management in Iran.
PESTEL values = f ((^ WiSiSWfactors) . w t SiOT factors)) q )
where Wi is the weight of SWOT factor i. Si is the score of SWOT factor i
and SW and OT are the internal (strengths and weaknesses) and ex¬
ternal (opportunities and threats) factors, respectively. The score of
each SWOT factor was determined by a panel of experts using a 1-4
scale, where a score of 1 represents failure of irrigation water man¬
agement efforts to minimize the internal weaknesses or external threats,
a score of 2 refers to desirable reduction or elimination of the internal
weaknesses or external threats, a score of 3 indicates poor utilization of
the internal strengths or external opportunities, and finally, a score of 4
relates to proper water managers efforts for reinforcing the internal
strengths and achieving the external opportunities (for more informa¬
tion about the SWOT analysis see Sarsby, 2016).
2.3. Water management strategy formulation
In order to propose water management strategies to ensure sus¬
tainable management of irrigation water in Iran, a TOWS matrix
(Weihrich, 1982) was employed by a panel of experts and policy makers
(Fig. 2). TOWS matrix develops alternative strategies based on logical
combinations of i) the internal strengths and the external opportunities
and threats and ii) the internal weaknesses and the external opportu¬
nities and threats (Trainer, 2004). The matrix determines four con¬
ceptually distinct groups to provide alternative strategies including i)
Strength-Opportunity (SO) strategies, when irrigation water managers
and practitioners utilize and reinforce internal strengths to access the
opportunities that are available in the external environment; ii)
Weaknesses-Opportunity (WO) strategies, when irrigation water man¬
agers reduce the internal weaknesses that can prevent implementation
of external opportunities; iii) Strength-Threats (ST) strategies, when
irrigation water managers and practitioners utilize internal strengths to
minimize the external factors that threaten efficient use of irrigation
water; and iv) Weaknesses-Threats (WT) strategies, when irrigation
water managers eliminate or minimize internal weaknesses to avoid
prevalence of external threats (for more information about the TOWS
analysis see Sarsby, 2016).
2.4. Identifying most important water management strategies
In order to create a deep understanding of the sequence and re¬
levance of the TOWS strategies, a process map was designed. In the first
step, primacy and recency of the irrigation water management strate¬
gies were discussed by a panel of experts and policy makers. In this
respect, the respondents were asked to determine the prerequisites of
each strategy. After that, a hierarchical network of strategies was de¬
vised to model and interpret the relationships between the water
management strategies. With this regard, three types of strategies were
identified by the experts and policy makers; i) initiation strategies; ii)
mediation strategies; and iii) termination strategies. The yEd Graph
Editor software was used to create the process map while adding a
hierarchical linking structure. Accuracy of the process map was vali¬
dated by a panel of experts and policy makers.
E-I index, which was formulated by Krackhardt and Stern (1988),
was used to measure the ratios of the internal and external ties and
standardize them into a commensurate value within the range of — 1.0
to +1.0. The E-I index was calculated as:
. , Number of external ties—Number of internal ties
Total number of ties (2)
An E-I index of —1.0 indicates only initiation orientation of strategies
whereas an E-I index of +1.0 signifies alternative termination strate¬
gies. Also, E-I measures between — 1 and +1 indicate the mediation
role of the strategies.
Furthermore, bottleneck analysis was carried out by the participants
to identify the most important initiation, mediation and termination
strategies for transformation of the current irrigation water manage¬
ment systems into more reliable and efficient systems. This analytical
method distinguishes the most critical strategies that prevent achieve¬
ment of the desired level of sustainability by an irrigation water man¬
agement system. The relative importance of the strategies was de¬
termined based on four principal criteria within a 0-10 scale that was
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
Priority scores and raking of the SWOT factors.
Priority score and
SI: Planning for development of resilient water management system
S2: Contribution of agriculture sector to 23% of employment
S3: Considering food security as a national priority
S4: Diversification of agricultural products and incomes
S5: Contribution of agriculture sector to 13% of GDP
Wl: Weak inter-institutional communications and inadequate dissemination of
information to farmers
W2: Low effectiveness of extension services for improving information about irrigation
W3: Weak regulation and monitoring of water uses
W4: Presumption of regional homogeneity and overlooking relative advantages of each
region for development
W5: Insufficient funding and regulation for implementation of land consolidation
W6: Inadequate implementation of the current regulatory framework
W7: Leave no incentives for farmers to increase efficiency of irrigation water use
W8: Weak empowerment of farmers for sustainable use of irrigation water
W9: Inadequate water tariffs
W10: Lack of strong water consumption adjustment programs
Wl 1: Mismatch of crop pattern with regional water availability conditions
W12: Unavailability of reliable data and information
Wl 3: Failure to meter water use
W14: Failure to establish regional cooperative water management institutions
W15: Poor social capital
Ol: Increasing awareness about the crucial role of investment in developing resilient
irrigation water management systems
02: Restriction of water use in plains that are under critical conditions
03: Improvement of regional and global water markets
04: Decentralization of water management
05: Increasing use of outgoing surface flows
06: Learning from advanced and successful water management projects
07: Adequate technical knowledge about extracting, transferring and distributing
08: Funding opportunities from national investors
09: Improving rural tourism
O10: Promotion of agro-based industries
Tl: Declining surface and ground water resources, and land subsidence
T2: Increasing water use tension and competition between agricultural and non-
T3: Agro-based rural economy that impose extensive pressure on water resources
T4: Limited control over groundwater abstraction
T5: Increasing competition over transboundary water systems
T6: Deteriorating water quality
17: Populist actions of decision makers and paying less attention to experts’
T8: Absence of an integrated view about sustainable agriculture and planning
shortsighted development projects
T9: Aggressive use of irrigation water
T10: Instability of water governance structure and uncoordinated development of the
consistently considered by the panel of experts. The principal criteria
included the ability of each strategy to i) stimulate healthy economic
productivity and profitability (EP); ii) increase physical productivity
(PP); iii) increase employment opportunities (EO); and iv) provide
sustainable water resources management (SWM). The weights of in¬
itiation, mediation and termination strategies were calculated using the
EP 1 + PP, + EO, + SWM,
Vj = WX— ---)
where Vj is the relative importance of strategy j and Elj is the number of
the internal and external ties that are related to the j* strategy.
3. Results and discussion
3.1. Identifying SWOTs of irrigation water management in Iran
The results of the SWOT analysis allowed identification of 40 critical
factors that influence irrigation water management in Iran (Table 2).
These factors form the internal and external environment of irrigation
water management and can be divided into the four groups of strengths
(5 factors), weaknesses (15 factors), opportunities (10 factors) and
threats (10 factors). As Table 2 indicates, the panel of experts and policy
makers assigned the highest priorities to the weaknesses (40.82%) and
threats (26.24%). Meanwhile, the opportunities (20.57%) and strengths
(12.37%) were ranked the third and fourth with respect to the sig¬
nificant of their effects on determining irrigation water management in
Iran (Table 2). This implies that the weaknesses of the irrigation water
management system existing in Iran dominate its strengths and the
threats determine the water management system of Iran rather than the
According to the weaknesses group of factors, ‘failure to establish
cooperative water management institutions’ (W14, 0.0286), ‘poor social
capital’ (W15, 0.0285) and Tow effectiveness of extension services’
(W2, 0.0281) represent the highest priorities (Table 2). This finding
reflects the importance of considering the social and institutional
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
determinants of irrigation water management. The other eight key
factors that are outlined in Table 2 include Tack of incentives’ (W7,
0.0281), ‘failure to meter water use’ (W13, 0.0281), ‘weak empower¬
ment of farmers’ (W8, 0.0276), ‘inadequate water tariffs’ (W9, 0.0273),
‘mismatch of crop pattern with water availability conditions’ CW11,
0.0271), ‘weak inter-institutional communications’ (Wl, 0.0267), ‘in¬
adequate implementation of the regulatory framework’ (W6, 0.0266)
and Tack of strong water use adjustment programs’ (W10, 0.0266).
In the case of the threats group of factors, the experts and policy
makers perceived that ‘limited control over groundwater abstraction’
(T4, 0.0279) should be considered as one of the key factors of in¬
efficient irrigation water management in Iran (Table 2), followed by
‘populist actions of decision makers’ (T7, 0.0276), ‘declining water re¬
sources and land subsidence’ (Tl, 0.0267), ‘increasing water use tension
and competition’ (T2, 0.0266) and ‘instability of water governance
structure’ (T10, 0.0261).
Among the ten factors identified as the opportunities for improving
irrigation water management, ‘promotion of agro-based industries’
(O10, 0.0250) represents the highest priority (Table 2), followed by
‘improving rural tourism’ (09, 0.0225), ‘improvement of water markets’
(03, 0.0218) and ‘decentralization of water management’ (04, 0.0212).
Finally, ‘diversification of agricultural products and incomes’ (S4,
0.0279) is the strength factor with the highest priority, followed by
‘considering food security as a national priority’ (S3, 0.0261) and
‘planning for development of resilient water management system’ (SI,
3.2. Current status of irrigation water management in Iran: PESTLE
PESTLE analysis was used to investigate the current status of irri¬
gation water management in Iran (Table 3). In this respect, the SWOT
factors were divided into the six groups of political (6 internal and 9
external factors), economic (7 internal and 6 external factors), social
(11 internal and 3 external factors), technological (4 internal and 1
external factors), legal (2 internal and 1 external factors) and en¬
vironmental (1 internal and 7 external factors), which are explained in
the following subsections.
3.2.1. Political factors
As it is displayed in Fig. 3, the experts and policy makers ac¬
knowledged the fact that political factors are the major drivers of the
current inefficient irrigation water management in Iran. The experts
and policy makers perceived some major political reasons for the irri¬
gation water crisis of Iran, i.e. dried up surface water resources and
declined groundwater tables. They believed that the national desire for
self-sufficiency in wheat production, planning to achieve food security
through rapid investment in constructing dams and centralization of
water management have imposed extra pressure on water resources.
Furthermore, instability of water governance structure, inadequate
implementation of the regulatory framework, lack of adequate mon¬
itoring data and poor irrigation water allocation and distribution sys¬
tems have intensified the irrigation water crisis in Iran. It is worth
noting that 277 out of the 609 plains of Iran are under critical condi¬
tions (Forootan et al., 2014) and extensive over-drafting of ground-
water from the confined and semi-confined aquifers has led to a major
land subsidence in many plains (Dehghani et al., 2013).
Also, the literature review showed that over-irrigation happened
during the 30-years period that Iran was experiencing its most extensive
and severe drought. It is while metering irrigation water use to control
water balance and productivity remains overlooked and farmers were
not found to be eager to improve their traditional water management
strategies. This is mainly because decision makers are more interested
in populist development agendas that produce immediate economic
impacts (Madani, 2014). As an outcome of over-irrigation, over-
exploitation of aquifers and inadequate access to drinking water.
irrigation water has been diverted from the agricultural sector to
drinking supplies (Mousavi, 2005), especially in the central and
southern parts of the country. This compulsory turn is normally the
product of nonexistent water resource management plans and man¬
agerial myopia. Furthermore, the absence of an integrated water
management view and implementing short-sighted water policies, such
as adjustment of water management boundaries from watershed to
political (provincial) boundaries, have exacerbated competitions be¬
tween the provinces to increase their gains from the shared watersheds
(Zarezadeh et al., 2013). Moreover, Iran’s efforts to increase its use of
the outgoing surface flows and transboundary aquifers, such as the
Sarakhs, Astara and Nakhichevan aquifers, can increase international
conflicts with the neighboring countries (Madani, 2014).
3.2.2. Economic factors
As Fig. 3 exhibits, the participants perceived that the current status
of irrigation water management is at a moderate level, based on both
internal and external economic factors. Currently, agriculture, as the
dominant sector in the Iranian rural economy, accounts for almost 23%
of employment, 13% of GDP, 20% of non-oil exports and 85% of raw
materials used in food processing industries (Islamic Republic News
Agency, IRNA, 2017). In order to achieve food security and increase
non-oil revenues, Iran’s government has tried to invest sufficiently in
the development of agricultural systems. However, the economic effi¬
ciency of this sector has significantly reduced due to the negative im¬
pacts of droughts and climate change. While diversification of agri¬
cultural products and incomes can reduce the risks of water scarcity,
most Iranian farm families have no job rather than farming. Therefore,
they deepen their wells continuously or dig new wells to withdraw
groundwater from depleting aquifers. Aggressive use of water resources
without adequate vision on irrigation water management can lead to
unsustainable agricultural production in arid and semi-arid regions of
To manage irrigation water demands in a sustainable way, water
prices and tariffs require to be determined based on the scarcity of
water resources. However, irrigation water prices and tariffs are not
high enough to be prohibitive, in Iran. Also, water markets are in¬
creasingly proposed as an efficient approach to reallocate irrigation
water under water scarcity and promote economic development in rural
communities (Bjornlund, 2003). However, Iran has much to do to de¬
velop water market mechanisms and there is an inconsistency between
irrigation water supply and demand. The inconsistency leads to the use
of the brackish and saline drainage water in irrigation. Furthermore,
while most policies have focused on matching crop patterns with re¬
gional water delivery capacities, crop pattern is not suitable and follows
traditional crop choices, in some arid and semi-arid regions. Lack of
knowledge and information about advanced crop management systems
that require less irrigation water implies absence or ineffectiveness of
extension programs in most parts of the country.
3.2.3. Social factors
As discussed by the participants, low level of social factors is a key
weakness of irrigation water management in Iran (Fig. 3). While only
15% of the Iran’s area is arable, the agriculture sector consumes over
90% of freshwater in the country (Samian et al., 2015). The country is
now suffering from inadequate vision on irrigation water management
due to limited control over groundwater abstraction, weak monitoring
of water usage and lack of strong water use adjustment plans. More¬
over, lack of effective coordination among authorities of the water
sector with authorities of other institutes and ministries has intensified
water crisis in arid and semi-arid regions of Iran. While this country is
experiencing a serious water crisis, some authorities outside the water
sector are trying to protect farmers against agricultural water allocation
policies that lessen irrigation water shares to conserve the environment
(Madani, 2014). Inter-institutional coordination can be improved by
partial decentralization of water resource management. However, the
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
Weights and scores of PESTLE factors.
SWOT factors Weight
empowerment of farmers
(W8) has been never
designed in Iran.
Moreover, the government has never considered adequate economic
and non-economic incentives for efficient water use. To support agri-
cultural producers, decision makers have significantly subsidized agri-
cultural water and energy
use. Substantial subsidization of water and
energy has not provided any motivation for increasing water efficiency
in the agriculture sector.
3.2.4. Technological factors
As perceived by the experts and policy makers and demonstrated in
low adoption of agricultural technologies is
one of the weak-
of agricultural water resource management
in Iran. The re-
S T »
spondents believed that aggressive use
of irrigation water by using
Strong groundwater pumping technologies has significantly increased in most
1.5 2 2.5 3
Fig. 3. Current status of irrigation water management in Iran. ‘P, ‘Ec’, ‘S’, T, ‘L’
and ‘En’ stand for ‘political’, ‘economic’, ‘social’, ‘technological’, ‘legal’ and
‘environmental’ factors, respectively.
government has failed to establish regional cooperative institutes of
water management and clarify the management roles of these institutes
in irrigation projects.
Also, a comprehensive plan for prioritization of social capitals and
parts of the country. Moreover, government’s failure to meter water use
through installation of smart groundwater monitoring devices has ex¬
acerbated water crisis in the agriculture sector. While adoption of
specific water saving technologies can increase water efficiency in the
agriculture sector, the low economic capacity of most farm families (i.e.
low income and insurance and poor access to credit or loans) has pre¬
vented them from application of these technologies (Keshavarz, 2016).
As a result, only 5% of the total irrigated land is under pressured irri¬
gation (FAO, 2008). Beside adoption of pressured irrigation, different
water conservation practices, such as land leveling and improving
water transfer system, can help farmers to distribute water properly
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
throughout their cropping fields and increase water efficiency. How¬
ever, participants perceived that adoption of these measures is directly
tied to the financial support provided by the government.
3.2.5. Legal factors
As Fig. 3 exhibits, one of the main factors that threatens the sus¬
tainability of irrigation water management is weakness in legal factors.
Some laws, regulations and programs have been developed to address
water problems and improve water resource management. While they
cover most important aspects of water management, the current im¬
plementation of these laws and regulations is inadequate. It is perceived
that water management is heavily relies on a ‘crisis management
paradigm’. It means that policy makers continue the separation of de¬
velopment from environmental issues in the search for short-term
economic benefits, hoping that no serious problem would interrupt
their agenda (Madani, 2014). If any problem arises from their short¬
sighted development plans, i.e. increasing water crisis, further effort
would be devoted to solving the problem’s symptoms to alleviate the
situation up to a semi-normal level.
3.2.6. Environmental factors
According to the external factors, the current performance of the
irrigation water management system is environmentally unsustainable
(Fig. 3). Iran has used most groundwater reservoirs and is currently
among the top groundwater users in the world (Doll et al., 2014).
Moreover, increased levels of nutrients and salinity have deteriorated
water quality of both surface and groundwater resources of the country
(Table 2). Poor quality of irrigation water (i.e. the presence of large
quantities of soluble salts), coupled with limited precipitation and high
evaporation, have significantly reduced the soil quality and affected the
sustainability of crop production (Jalali and Merrikhpour, 2008). Since
the rural economy of Iran depends on agricultural and agro-based in¬
dustries, soil and water degradations have created substantial chal¬
lenges for farm families and have seriously reduced their incomes.
Failure to diversify income resources has also increased a tendency
towards abandoning farming and out-migration, in some water scarce
In order to mitigate long-term negative consequences of farming
practices on natural water resources, learning from successful water
management projects and enhancing technical knowledge and in¬
formation about advanced methods of extracting, transferring and
distributing irrigation water are imperative (Keshavarz, 2016). How¬
ever, farmers have failed to learn from advanced water management
experiences and efficiency of irrigation water is still low.
3.3. Strategies for securing sustainable management of irrigation water in
3.3.1. Looking for solution strategies
PESTLE analysis revealed that irrigation water management is not
efficient, in Iran (Fig. 3) and the present strategies are inadequate to
solve irrigation water problems. As pressure on irrigation water re¬
sources is increasing, there is a growing need for new strategies to solve
the present problems of the water and agriculture sectors. In order to
propose new solutions, TOWS matrix was used by the panel of experts
and policy makers. It permitted determination of 30 strategies for mi¬
tigation of irrigation water problems (Table 4). These strategies were
classified as Strength-Opportunity (SO: 10 strategies), Weaknesses-Op-
portunity (WO: 12 strategies), Strength-Threats (ST: 5 strategies) and
Weaknesses-Threats (WT: 3 strategies) groups (Table 4).
Furthermore, causal relationships among irrigation water manage¬
ment strategies were determined by the panel of experts (Fig. 4). Ac¬
cording to Fig. 4, it is apparent that improving irrigation water man¬
agement in Iran requires implementation of a complex web of
After setting up the causal diagram, TOWS strategies were
categorized as initiation (5), mediation (20) and termination (5) stra¬
tegies using E-I index (Table 5). Finally, the prominent strategies were
evaluated based on Eq. (3) (Table 5). These strategies are briefly de¬
scribed in the following sections.
3.3.2. Prominent strategies for improving irrigation water management in
220.127.116.11. Initiation strategies. As indicated in Fig. 5, ‘rethinking the role
of intensified agriculture on national development of Iran’ (WOl) is the
first and most important strategy for ensuring sustainable management
of irrigation water in Iran.
Since the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the agriculture sector has re¬
ceived many supports from the government in order to ensure food
supply, increase non-oil production revenues and alleviate poverty in
rural areas. However, contribution of agriculture to overall growth has
reduced from over 33% to 13% (Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA,
2017). While the agriculture sector is under extra pressure to be an
effective engine for economic growth of rural Iran, continuous agri¬
cultural growth will be difficult due to groundwater depletion, soil
degradation and drought. Moreover, climate change is projected to
increase pressure on water resources and reduce agricultural produc¬
tion (IPCC, 2014). In order to ensure sustainable management of water
resources, rethinking the role of intensive agriculture on national de¬
velopment is imperative. Although the climate change impacts on the
arid and semi-arid regions cannot be prevented, there is still a great
room for managing the tradeoffs of agricultural intensification by
considering more sustainable production systems, e.g. multifunctional
agriculture (Moon, 2015) and reinforcing non-farm economy, to ensure
food security and poverty eradication (Keshavarz et al., 2017).
Also, as indicated in Fig. 5, to protect water resources from de¬
structive actions of farmers, priority should be given to enhancing so¬
cial capital (WOll). Most governmental support mechanisms fail to
equip farmers with appropriate knowledge and information or em¬
power them to involve in water management projects. This is while
adaptive co-management of water resources, i.e. cooperation of various
stakeholders and institutions, is required to cope with the increasing
water crisis in Iran. Facilitating participation of farmers in water
management projects and providing opportunities for them to com¬
municate with other stakeholders and higher authorities can increase
the productivity of agriculture. Empowerment of farmers can be done
by providing training about water resource management issues and
provisioning incentives for formation of local cooperative water man¬
agement institutions or rehabilitation of traditional water user asso¬
ciations, i.e. the Ab-baran.
Based on the experts’ viewpoints, failure in modeling climate
system, deficiency of accurate weather forecasts or lack of effective
early warning systems can obstruct sustainable management of water
resources. Therefore, improving climate modeling and facilitating ac¬
cess to reliable data and information is imperative (Fig. 5; W04). Im¬
proved access to climatic data and information can contribute to sus¬
tainable water management through several pathways. First, it
persuades making better decisions about farming systems and water
resources, i.e. schedule irrigation, to minimize the potential damages
and stabilize income. Secondly, availability of climate predictions
provides opportunities for research centers to introduce new and more
adaptive crop types for various regions and allows diversification of
high-value products. Third, it can contribute to developing the methods
that promote crop and livestock production, in the case of climatic
conditions that are beyond the range of recent experiences.
18.104.22.168. Mediation strategies. According to Fig. 5, in order to ensure
sustainable use of irrigation water clarification of current status and
future challenges of water and agriculture sectors is needed (ST4). Iran
is one of the world’s water-scarce regions and its per capita freshwater
availability is about 2000 m 3 per year. However, it is projected that it
will reduce to 1500 m 3 per capita per year by 2030 (Yang et al., 2003).
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
TOWS matrix for mitigation of irrigation water management problems.
SO (maxi-maxi) strategies WO (mini-maxi) strategies
SOI: Prohibiting further water abstraction from plains that are under critical
S02: Implementation of an efficient water market
S03: Developing low water consuming industries
S04: Sustainable development of rural tourism
S05: Promotion of agro-based industries
S06: Diversification of agricultural products and incomes
S07: Implementing water projects with the support of international agencies
S08: Increasing adoption of water-efficient technologies
S09: Reaching an agreement over sharing of the transboundary aquifers
SO10: Formation of regional cooperative agricultural water management
WOl: Rethinking the role of intensified agriculture on national development of Iran
W02: Ensuring reasonable food production
W03: Analysis of knowledge and information about water-saving agricultural practices
W04: Improving climate predictions and access to reliable water resources data
W05: Offering specific official training opportunities about efficient use of water resources
W06: Outreach of extension services and increasing effectiveness of extension programs
W07: Appointment of water authorities with high levels of technical and professional
W08: Human resource development planning in the water supply sector
W09: Technical and vocational training of experts and change agents
WOIO: Marketing of agricultural products
WOll: Enriching social capital
WOl2: Using public media to share information and educate public about sustainable
ST (maxi-mini) strategies
WT (mini-mini) strategies
ST1: Promoting participatory water management and preventing populist development actions
ST2: Development of integrated plans to improve water efficiency
ST3: Raising managers’ awareness and attitude toward the risk of water resource development
ST4: Clarification of the current status and future challenges of water and agriculture sectors
ST5: Modification of water management boundaries from provincial to watershed boundaries and
conflict resolution among stakeholders in the watershed boundaries
WT1: Metering water use in agriculture and industries
WT2: Reducing cultivation of high water requirement crops and developing
entrepreneurship in the rural environment
WT3: Modification of inappropriate crop patterns with respect to regional
resource availability conditions
Therefore, climate change has important implications for the
agriculture sector, as the major water consumer. Climate change is
expected to limit crop production, increase irrigation water
requirement, deteriorate farm families’ income and reduce
agricultural employment (Karimi et al., 2017). In order to enhance
resilience against climate change and maintain water security, it is
imperative for governors to appreciate the complexity of human-
natural systems. So that, raising their awareness and attitude toward
risks of water resource development plans is required (Fig. 5; ST3).
Without risk awareness, it will be very difficult to address real water
problems and promote a behavior change towards non-populist
Fig. 4. Mapping relevancy of the TOWS strategies.
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
Relative importance of strategies.®
EP a score
PP b score
EO c score
SWM d score
a Economic productivity and profitability.
b Physical productivity.
c Employment opportunities.
d Sustainable water resources management.
e See Section 2.4 for description of the principal criteria and measurement of the importance score.
As it is shown in Fig. 5, the issue of irrigation water scarcity can be
partially solved through adopting water-efficient technologies (S08).
As discussed by Wang et al. (2002), an integrated system should be
considered that supports the three components of rational utilization of
agricultural water resources, water-saving irrigation and agronomic
water-saving techniques (Wang et al., 2002). Though there are various
traditional water-saving technologies, e.g. border irrigation, furrow ir¬
rigation and land leveling, household-based water-saving technologies,
e.g. ground pipes, plastic film cover, stubble retention and growing
drought-resistant varieties, and community-based technologies, e.g.
pressured irrigation and anti-seepage channel, overall adoption level is
low in Iran. Adoption of water-efficient technologies is determined by a
complex set of factors, among which scarcity of water resources and
policy interventions are the main determinants (Keshavarz and Karami,
2014). Therefore, enhancing adoption of water-saving technologies,
extension of water-saving technologies (Fig. 5; S08) and subsidizing
community-based water-efficient technologies are effective policy tools.
Agricultural extension services can play great roles in promoting the
ability of farmers to manage water resources. In this way, farmers that
have more contacts with extension agents would show a higher like¬
lihood to implement water-efficient technologies.
Nowadays, severe water scarcity, mismanagement of available
water resources and inappropriate crop patterns have led to increased
food imports (FAOSTAT, 2013). Increasing food imports may pose
serious economic and political challenges for Iran. Participants per¬
ceived that filling the food associated gaps and ensuring reasonable
food production (Fig. 5; W02), requires some adjustments with respect
to the food security priorities and regional water availability condi¬
tions. Also, there is a crucial need of revisiting inappropriate policies
that encourage groundwater mining, such as cultivation of high water
requirement crops (Fig. 5; WT3), in arid and semi-arid regions of Iran.
Promoting low water requirement crops and providing long-term in¬
centives for water resource management through fostering en¬
trepreneurship in the rural environment of arid and semi-arid regions
are offered by the respondents. Also, it is necessary to make public
media more responsive to the significance of water resource problems
of Iran (Fig. 5; W012). Like many other developing countries, Iranian
people do not properly value the ecosystem services and cannot fully
understand the trade-offs between rapid shortsighted development
plans and their long-term environmental consequences (Madani, 2014).
Public media is a great platform to share information and educate
people about values of ecosystem services and sustainable management
of water resources.
22.214.171.124. Termination strategies. Based on Fig. 5, promotion of agro-
based industries (S05) and development of integrated plans to improve
water efficiency (ST2) are two key termination strategies for ensuring
sustainable management of irrigation water. Generally, agro-based
industries are small or medium sized enterprises that add value to
agricultural products through processing them into edible or non-edible
products. Agro-based industries can offer employment opportunities,
enhance income and profitability within local communities (Epstein
and Jezeph, 2001) and reduce extra pressures on water resources by
comprising vertical integration towards the market. However, agro-
based industries have remained rudimentary and have received
inadequate support from the government.
Furthermore, the ability of farmers to contribute effectively to the
growth process depends on addressing the complexity and uncertainties
of the irrigation water system and improving irrigation water effi¬
ciency. To reach these goals, exploitation and use of non-conventional
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
II, ] .4]
[I, 6.4J VVOl I
(I, 7J = B
| IV' I, 4.75|
[INI. ‘1. 7:51
1 vi, (>.sj
|M, L 41
▼ ▼ s
WO 12 | i\f, 6.81
| Al, 7.47|
> r y
Fig. 5. Hierarchy of the policy strategies. ‘I, ‘M’ and ‘T’ stand for ‘initiation’, ‘mediation’ and ‘termination’ strategies. The prominent strategies are highlighted as
water resources (i.e. reclaimed water and desalinated brackish and
seawater) can be considered in water scarce regions (Mousavi, 2005;
Sheidaei et al., 2016). However, application of non-conventional water
sources should be feasible from the financial, environmental, social and
political points of view. Moreover, great public involvement and sub¬
stantial changes in the current water management pathway are re¬
quired. Irrigation water management should consider long-term
management perspectives and integrated water management plans in
order to reduce water crisis, in Iran. An integrated management should
recognize multiple objectives of different stakeholders, interrelated
dynamics of the agriculture sector with the other sectors and regional to
global scales, variability of natural and social boundary conditions and
benefits from various nonstructural and structural solutions. It is ob¬
vious that such an integrated management needs collaboration of
B. Nazari et al.
Agricultural Water Management 208 (2018) 7-18
experts from many disciplines, development of new institutional ar¬
rangements between the public and private sectors, revision of the
current water governance structure and consideration of new water
resources (e.g. recycled and non-conventional water resources).
Also, a fundamental shift in water policy paradigm from command
and control to market-driven policies is needed (Fig. 5; S02). Water
market is an essential instrument to reallocate water between com¬
peting users under water stress. The experts and policy makers believed
that development of water right market and full-cost recovery pricing
policy can encourage the farmers to increase the economic efficiency of
water use and force those historical holders of water rights that are
unable to make necessary adjustments to stop irrigation and transfer
water to other users. The implementation of reliable water market calls
for continuous regulation and monitoring of water use as well as the
development of price-setting mechanisms to support water trades and
ensure that this reallocation process takes places efficiently.
Efficiency of water use is very low in the agriculture sector of Iran
and performance of many water management schemes is far from sa¬
tisfactory. This study presented an approach to identify the numerous
internal and external factors that affect planning, designing and im¬
plementing water management agendas and provide a set of strategies
to solve the present problems of the irrigation water sector.
A combination of the SWOT and PESTLE analyses was used to de¬
scribe the current status of irrigation water management in Iran. The
SWOT analysis demonstrated 40 critical factors that reinforced or de¬
preciated irrigation water management. An in-depth analysis of these
factors suggested that irrigation water management should mainly
concentrate on eliminating the major weaknesses, as well as mitigating
the threats. In this respect, the decision makers should perform different
activities to overcome the main weaknesses and threats identified by
the analysis. Furthermore, to take into account all aspects of the in¬
efficient use of irrigation water in Iran, the SWOT factors were grouped
as the political, economic, social, technological, legal and environ¬
mental factors. Findings indicated that the problems that are faced in
irrigation water management are complex and multi-faceted. Legal,
social, technological and political challenges were identified as the key
factors for failure of irrigation water management and it was found out
that the government has achieved a limited success in preventing the
serious irrigation water problems. It seems that the SWOT/PESTLE
analysis is a very promising approach for managing water resources and
provides a deeper and more precise understanding of the current rea¬
lities of water management, compared with the standard SWOT.
According to the findings, the government should revisit its ap¬
proach in order to solve the present problems of the water and agri¬
culture sectors. In this respect, the most common challenge is making
decision about which solution strategies should be considered for en¬
suring sustainable management of irrigation water in Iran. To make
such important decision, the TOWS matrix was applied based on a
combination of the external and internal factors that influence the
planned actions within the irrigation water system. Also, bottleneck
analysis was used to identify the prominent initiation, mediation and
termination strategies that satisfy the principal criteria. ‘Rethinking the
role of intensified agriculture in national development’, ‘raising the
managers’ awareness and attitude toward the risk of water resource
development plans’, ‘promotion of agro-based industries’ and ‘devel¬
opment of integrated plans to improve water efficiency’ were dis¬
tinguished as the most important strategies for improving the irrigation
water efficiency in Iran. This finding implies that the government
should avoid populist and shortsighted actions and focus on funda¬
mental solutions that have more noticeable impacts to manage irriga¬
tion water efficiently. Since Iran is water scarce country, these findings
provide useful prospects for optimizing the use of limited water re¬
sources. Also, the hierarchy of strategies, which is determined in this
research, can be applied as a road-map to enhance the resilience of
irrigation water resources under the condition of water scarcity.
This research was supported by the Ministry of Energy of Iran,
deputy of Water Demand Management and Water Productivity
Improvement. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of
Dr. Mojtaba Razavi Nabavi, Dr. Seyed Hamid Musavi, Mr. Mojtaba
Akram, Dr. Amir Alambaigi, Dr. Teymour Sohrabi, and Dr. Mahdi
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