The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 2, no 1 (2019)
ISSN 2612-0496

Rediscovering Community Participation in Persian Qanats: An Actor-Network Framework

Arash SalekGemeente Rotterdam (Netherlands)

Arash Salek is an urban historian and Policy advisor on heritage, regional development and Urban development.

Published: 2019-12-20


Most of Iran's inland areas have permanently lain within arid regions. Today, Iran’s groundwater depletion-rate today among the fastest in the world. From the beginning of the agricultural revolution and land-reform in the 1960s, Iran has adopted a governmental highly bureaucratic approach to water management fuelled by technological improvements in high water-dam constructions and modernization of irrigation infrastructure.

However, these systems relied on the centralized water management which couldn’t solve the issue of the country’s increasing water-stresses and therefore it has been challenged by many critiques from civil society and academia.

For centuries, Iran has relied on socio-economic networks to manage groundwater and the traditional method of water-exploitation named qanats which represents an effective system of social corporation and civic participation in water management and in solving the issue of water scarcity in dry regions. This paper introduces a theoretical framework for the necessary transition from the centralized water management towards a multi-actor water-governance regime by adapting the Actor-Network Theory for understanding the traditional patterns of collective water management inside qanat-dependent communities.

Keywords: qanats; participatory water management; social ecosystem; Actor-Network Theory.

Qanats culture and history

During the last two decades, Iran has been facing extreme drought. Increasingly mounting demands and inappropriate water management are imposing unmaintainable pressures on Iran’s water resources. The Iranian environmental activist Kaveh Madani states: “Frequent droughts coupled with over-extraction of surface and groundwater through a large network of hydraulic infrastructure and deep wells have escalated the nation’s water situation to a critical level. This is evidenced by drying lakes, qanats, rivers and wetlands, declining groundwater levels, land subsidence, water quality degradation, soil erosion, desertification and more frequent dust storms.”1

For thousands of years, the Iranians have lived in an arid climate inside the dry Persian plateau, which is not suitable for human life. More than two-thirds of their country is a desert and receives less than 50mm of rainfall a year. Other regions of the world with so little rainfall are barren of attempts at agriculture. So far, Iran has been traditionally a farming country that not only has grown its own food but also managed to produce crops for export, such as cotton, dried fruits, oilseeds and so on.2 The Iranians have achieved this remarkable accomplishment by developing an ingenious system of qanats for tapping underground water in a way that we would nowadays call sustainable. They traditionally used to live in harmony with their environment, so their techniques to supply water did not end up in the annihilation of groundwater resources.3

A qanat or kariz is a sloping tunnel which drains the groundwater from an aquifer and leads it to the surface by using gravity flow conditions. It contains a series of vertical shafts in sloping ground, connected underground by various tunnels. These shafts are sunk at intervals of tens up to hundreds of meters in a line amid the groundwater recharge zone and the irrigated land. From the air, a qanat appears as a line of anthills leading from the foothills across the desert to the greenery of an irrigated settlement.

Fig. 1 a qanat profile. Courtesy ICQHS.
Fig. 1 a qanat profile. Courtesy ICQHS.

In his 1979 publication Les qanats: technique d'acquisition de l'eau, Henry Goblot describes qanats as the primary factor for the development of civilization inside the Iranian plateau.4 The development of qanats is not an epiphany of a genius inventor, but a culmination of an evolutionary process resulting from a network of people and institutions. It can be argued that qanats presented a proper way of civic participation inside their societies to solve the problems of water scarcity and empowered the social coherence rested on peaceful water consumption agreements.

Around the third millennium BC qanat technology was introduced in the central Iranian plateau which revolutionized people’s ability to survive and subsist within this arid region.5 By the first millennium BC, qanats were spread throughout the entire Iranian plateau, from the highlands of Armenia to the lowlands around Kavir, the central desert of Iran. In the Achaemenids era (550–330 BC), the development of qanat technology stimulated the development of thousands of settlements in the entire empire. Fundamentally, qanats reduced the impact of Iran’s plain seasonality, allowing for sustainable dwelling in the Iranian plateau, and to utilize the rich alluvial soils.6 The Greek historian Polybius (200–118 BC) mentions the crucial role of qanats in the existence and development of urbanity in the Iranian plateau and notes the importance of social engagement in their maintenance and functionality: “A true account of these channels has been preserved among the natives to the effect that, during the Persian ascendency, they granted the enjoyment the profits of the land to the inhabitants of some of the waterless districts for five generations, on condition of their bringing, fresh water in; and that, there being many large streams flowing down Mount Taurus, these people at infinite toil and expense construct these underground channels through a long tract, of country, in such a way that the entire society worked together in their construction and use their water and praising the sources from which the channels are originally supplied.”7

During the first millennium AD, some powerful administrative institutions were established to protect the water codes and to register and guarantee the access of groups or individuals to qanat water.[^8] A law book from the Sassanid era (224 to 651 AD) mentions the right of every citizen to access water in general, and specifically qanat waters. Their protection from pollution and the need for the public participation in their maintenance are prescribed as public duty.8

During the early Islamic era, hundreds of new urban areas were developed as power hubs of Islam around the greater Muslim caliphdom and most of them were supplied by qanat water even if they were established close to rivers. This was due to strategic reasons, namely, because the qanat water was safer and less polluted than river and spring water.9 In the 13th century, Hamdollah Mostofi, a Persian historian and geographer, describes the city of Tabriz as the capital of farming and agriculture with around 900 ever-flowing qanats. He notes that many of these qanats were built, financed and owned by the local communities or were donated by government or guilds to religious institutions.10

During the Safavid era (1501–1736), in order re-establish communications and commerce alongside the ancient Silk Road, hundreds of qanats were constructed for the water supply of the thousands of new caravanserais built along internal and transit roads. Everybody could use their waters but mostly they were maintained and preserved by caravan leaders (karewan_salar) and communities and by the few permanent inhabitants of the caravanserais.11

During the Qājār period (1789–1925), thousands of new qanats and water reservoirs were constructed. However, many of the peasants were not entitled to own the lands and water they worked on. Therefore, lots of qanats were founded by feudal landlords and rented to individual peasants and their communities through the institute of boneh.12

In the 1960s, a national agricultural development plan and a land reform program, were presented by the government of the Shah to end feudalism in Iran and allow peasants to obtain the ownership of farms. In this period of technological and governmental modernisation, the traditional patterns of water management changed dramatically. On the one hand, the traditional participatory and community-based water management system was replaced by a centralised bureaucratic system of water companies and technocrats working under the patronage of the government.13 On the other hand, qanats were substituted by the construction of large water dams, irrigation channels and deep wells with electric and fuel-powered pumps.14

After the Islamic revolution of 1979, the new administration pushed the so-called Jihad Sazandeghi (the Jihad of Construction), to improve the self-reliance of the country. Subsidizing water and energy for the agricultural sector and allowing famers to dig water wells were among the government’s plans to encourage agricultural expansion without considering the traditional water resources of the country.15 Later, the Iranian government tried to change this pattern through some reform with the ratification of the regional Water and Wastewater Companies Law of September 1990.16 But the efforts in the activation of civil society participation in water resource management and the stimulation of local community engagement in this field have been inadequate.17 In the 1980–2000 period, more than 14,000 qanats dried out due to falling water tables related to extractions of 500,000 pumped wells around the country.18

Traditional Collective Ownership of Water Resources in Qanat Societies and the Actor-Network Theory

“The Persian qanat system is an exceptional testimony to the tradition of providing water to arid regions to support settlements. The technological and communal achievements of the qanats play a vital role in the formation of this civilizations.” (Unesco nomination of the Persian Qanats 2016)

The qanats’ social ecosystem can be analyzed from the position and engagement level of various actors and organizations. On the one hand, their existence and functionality are completely related to humans and their creative power in solving environmental problems. On the other hand, qanats have affected the foundation of life for human beings and they affected the structure of the local communities in a positive, sustainable and resilient way. Qanats are environmentally, socially and economically woven into the social structure and communities of their users. Through centuries many complex paths of human-water interaction in arid regions of Iran have been developed based on the existence and functionality of qanats.19 Moreover, as not many individual farmers could afford the investment in labor and wealth which was required for construction and maintenance of qanats, the development of qanats has been totally dependent on collective actions of various members of local communities.20

The Actor-Network Theories (ANT) of Latour, Callon and Law can help us to understand the institutional background and networks and the interaction between leading actors and factors in the past and present which have been established related to the existence and functionality of qanats.21 Through ANT, social ecosystems may be described as social-ontological phenomena.22 Moreover, according to ANT, actors can be not only humans, but also non-humans, like flora, fauna, geography or existing infrastructures, etc. In that case, one speaks about actants. According to Latour, these actants have the ability to change their environment, as they have the capacity for agency.23 An existing mountain, river, road or groundwater resource allows specific spatial development opportunities, as would the availability of technology, money, etc. However, change comes only when these actants interact; or, in other words, whenever they enter a network or association. In these networks, human and non human actants shape themselves by virtue of their relations with one another. Governments, landlords, farmers, water users or residents, (water) planners or (qanat) engineers could be seen as actants. But rather than the players themselves, the decisive factor as the input for development is heterogeneous networking. Like governments, in networked societies everyone has to confront themselves with network assemblages between various actants in order to realize their own objectives.

The process of formation and transformation of the network is called translation. The translation of qanats, as any other actor network, has four stages which are described in the following paragraphs.

1 Problematization

Problematization is the first moment of translation. It relates to the process of a principal or focal actor striving to become indispensable to the other actors by defining the problem/opportunity and motivating them to enter the network. Therefore, problematization describes the process of alliances, or associations between actants by identifying what they want.

Qanats were built by Iranian farmers and landlords out of communal or pure self interest. Qanats functioned as a primary and essential infrastructure for local liveliness. In every qanat’s “agricultural assemblage,”24 we can focus either on the will of human actors—the assignment and founding the qanat’s field operations, the set-up of the hierarchical links between actors and agencies, the management of conflicts, planning, governance, policy making, knowledge and institutionalization—or on topography or hydrology. From this point of view, no distinct actor can be seen as the only responsible for the construction and functionality of qanats. The existence of qanats requires many collective and communal acts. All the elements of the network need to play their part at the appropriate time for the network to remain stable. They also need to cooperate, since the elements depend on each other, regardless of whether they are human or non-human.25

Let’s start from the digging process and development of qanats. Historically, moqannis (qanat diggers), as the masterminds of qanat technology, got commissions for the construction and the extension of qanats from local communities, governors and major landlords. They implemented and guided the digging process and monitored the functionality of the water flow after the construction of the qanats. The engineering skills and hydraulic knowledge and experience of the moqannis have been a crucial part in the development of qanats. After the implementation of qanats project, the moqannis delivered the qanats to their owners and in most of the cases the organization/community of stakeholders and water users.

At the stage of the establishment of the network, other connections between actors occur. A heterogeneous organization is established in the core of qanat’s socio economic milieu related to the sustainable transport and consumption of the underground water. For instance, qanats were very expensive projects and their exploitation took long time. Village inhabitants and communities could rarely afford the construction costs of qanat projects. For this reason, a series of investors (landlord or local businessmen, religious institutions) funded the construcion of the qanat. In this way, qanats were based on a kind of collective property, funded by the investments of landlords, traders, religious organisation, or voluntary labour from local farmers and inhabitants. However, several qanats were also privately owned. Others, were vaqf, contributed to religious institutions for public use, or owned by the royal family and central/regional governments.26

In this context, the organization of boneh and the qanat councils can be seen as a social unit wherein some agents (i.e. water users and famers) had rights to use qanat water cooperatively, based on the shared interests of the stakeholders. In particular, boneh (land rentals) was the most notable form of rural co-operation in the field of agricultural economy in Iran. However there were also other types of qanat organizations which were established related to private/financial interests or the political or religious reasons.

In some progressive types of qanat organizations, a qanat council in the community of water users and stakeholders was established to manage all qanat affairs. Usually, they were made up of 5-7 members who were selected by farmers and water users. Every year the qanat owners singled out a few people who were believed by all to be trusted, honest and experienced as council members. In turn, the council should have voted to choose, among the most well-known and influential personalities in the community, the representatives to take care of qanat issues. Their task was to network with other organizations and the government to solve qanat issues.27

The power and existence of qanat organizations in various regions was dependent on climate conditions and environmental factors. In areas with favorable natural conditions like the northern provinces of Iran, farmers could enjoy individual types of agri-businesses, and they did not need to engage in qanat organizations. But in areas with harsh climate and in permanent water stress, harvesting dependeded on limited water resources. In these regions, famers had vital interactions with qanat communities, and bonehs were the most common forms adopted to efficiently use water for farming. In each organization many practices and laws concerning the qanat’s shareholder’s interests and the ways of water distribution, farming and herding have been designed and implemented in accordance with the needs of the rural community and their socio-economic traditions.28

Before the agricultural revolution and land reform of the 1960s, these organizations protected the water rights and supervised the distribution of water, and set the rules for the maintenance of qanats inside each qanat community. In most of the rural areas, every farmer could irrigate his land as much as his water share permitted him to do. The water share could range from few hours up to some months, according to the contribution and the share sizes of water users in qanats. Qanat shares were regularly allocated on the basis on the financial capability of their owners. Everyone could buy qanat’s water shares even if he or she did not live inside the qanat region and had any land property in the village. However, the shareholding of many qanats were based on more complicated systems, based on a schedule rotating within a certain period. This water division system was consistent with all the likely fluctuation in the volume of water during the year, while quenching the farmers’ demand for water.29

Most of the shareholders of qanats should have participated in crucial decision-making processes and all the important economic and social matters of their qanāt community.

In a recent study concerning the initial stages of qanat-related social participation, Semsar Yazdi have described the organization of stakeholders and board of one of the few remaining qanat organization inside the historic city of Zarch (Yazd province). The organization and council of this qanat is still the most important decision-making body running this qanat. Every year some 50–60 of the qanat owners congregate and single out few people who are believed all to be trusted, honest and experienced as qanat council leaders. Though a share of qanat water is not prerequisite for taking membership of the qanat council, the council members are usually from among the qanat owners who are believed to have stronger motive to take care of qanat issues.30