Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Inside an Iranian qanat. CC BY-SA 3.0 NAEINSUN/WikiMedia

Overview of the Iranian Qanat Water System


A major part of the Iranian Plateau consists of vast deserts with low precipitation ratios. Interestingly, the land has been home to numerous settlements since prehistory. To all these settlements, water constituted, as it is still is, a vital natural resource with economic, social, and cultural values.

The scarcity of water resources … led inhabitants to resort to intelligent strategies for wise procurement, reserving, exploitation, and use of water, and invent detailed, effective distribution and reservoir preservation methods … Water is prominently present in all aspects of the lives of Iranians, and has mingled firmly with all cultural elements. (Mirshokraei, 2001:10-11)

This multidimensional presence makes it difficult, if not impossible, to bring water exclusively under one of the five domains of ICH. In this article, however, I will try to review a few achievements from the point of view of traditional knowledge.

Water Management System

The water reservoirs of Iran include rivers, qanats (underground water canals), springs, wells, traditional dams, cisterns, yakhdans (buildings for keeping ice). Asserted by Article 45 of the Iranian Constitution, the Ministry of Energy undertakes water management. The same regulation requires the government to plan for equitable water distribution.

Nevertheless, numerous traditional water management methods exist. We will have a glance at a few procurement and distribution methods, below.

Procurement: Qanat/Kariz

Qanat or kariz is an outstanding Iranian traditional knowledge invention for underground water resources exploitation.

There are around 31,000 qanats in Iran with an annual supply of 9 billion square meters of underground water … a sector that works without electricity, fossil fuel, or etc., and does not aggravate negative environmental side effects or pollution. (Semsar Yazdi, 2004:10)

Iran’s almost 3,000-year-old network of qanats manifests as kilometers of interconnected underground canals, each connecting hundreds of wells dug to bring water from basins to farms and towns. This traditional knowledge includes a comprehensive management system.

Generally, ownership is public and enjoyed by the diggers, their inheritors, people who buy haqqabe (water share), or people who pay the construction costs and rent the water to farmers in exchange for crops. The digging is a communal affair; the management requires stakeholder involvement. The exploitation and distribution methods are, however, diverse in different regions. (Miri, 2018)


The annual water consumption rate throughout Iran is estimated to be 94 billion square meters. The estimated shares of different sectors include agriculture (87 billion, 92.5%), drinking (5.7 billion, 6.1%), and industries (1.3 billion, 1.4%), and 54% of this water is comes from underground. (Iranian Water and Sewage Organization, 2011)

The rural consumption and exploitation management systems work on three levels—namely, procurement, distribution, and consumption. Procurement is jointly done by landlords and the community; the mirabs, ab-salars, or ab-dars (water agents) are the distributors; the consumption management is either a group or individual responsibility. (Visan Consulting Engineers, 2003:286-7)

Distribution Methods

Water-share management follows communal norms and manifests as either volume- or time-based.

Water clock to measure water-sharing time CC BY-SA 3.0 Maahmaah/WikiMedia
Among the diverse volume-based methods, the sang (stone) method of Tehran region is defined as “the volume of water flowing smoothly at fifteen steps per minute, through a 20x20cm mouth into a cleared canal.” (Safinejad, 1988) The moqassemi (dividing plate) is another method applied to streams running through several farms, villages, or areas, or to greater water volumes that need to be broken down into smaller portions. The stone or wooden dividing plates fixed on a width of streams break down the volume proportional to the shares of farmers. There are reference water-share rolls, and mirabs supervise proper distribution.

The water-travel cycle (madar-/dowr-e gardesh-e ab), detailed calculation of the interval between two watering turns, constitutes time-based water distribution and is the oldest method in Iran. This interval follows local demand, and ranges from once in less than a week to once in more than two weeks. The most popular interval is twelve days, which is ideal for Iran’s major crops, i.e. wheat and oats. A full day is divided into smaller time intervals called taq, the time needed for fenjan, a brass cup with a small hole at its bottom, to fill and sink for a determined number of times in a larger bowl called kase. The name taq-ab (watering timing) refers to this method. In Vaneshan, north-central Iran, each madar lasts for seven full days, and each day is equal to three bigger taqs (72 fenjans), or six smaller taqs (36 fenjans).


The described strategies and methods exemplify successful traditional management. The good practice showcases Iran’s achievement in safeguarding a respectful, tolerating, and environment-friendly tradition. Due to these three attributes, this contribution of Iran to the intangible cultural heritage of humanity deserves worldwide visibility and promotion.


Azkia, Mostafa and Valiollah Rostamalizadeh (2015). “Social Aspects of Irrigation System in Iran.” Iranian Journal of Anthropology, 12, 21:11-43.

Iranian Water and Sewage Organization (2011). 2011 Report. Iranian Ministry of Energy.

Miri, Mohammad Reza (2018). Qanats of Natanz. Tehran: Pishin Pajouh.

Mirshokraei, Mohammad (2001). Man and Water in Iran, an Anthropological Research. Tehran: Iranian National Water Treasury.

Safinejad, Javad (1988). “Ab-sanji” (“water measurement”). Great Islamic Encyclopedia, 1:50-60. Tehran: GIEF.

Semsar Yazdi, Ali Asghar et al (2004). Collection of Best Practices by Qanat Experts. Tehran: Setiran Consulting Engineers.

Visan Consulting Engineers (2003). 2nd Conference on Agriculture Sector Exploitation System in Iran. Tehran: Iranian Ministry of Agriculture.