Water theft is a problem that many people are not even aware exists. And yet up to 50 percent of our planet’s most precious resource is being obtained illegally every year according to research from Nature Sustainability.
The study reveals that between 30 and 50 percent of water is stolen, mainly for agricultural purposes. It looked at three case studies involving processes which require significant levels of water – strawberry growing in Spain, cotton growing in Australia and marijuana growing in California – and analysed why water theft took place and the impact it has.
Is water theft a crime?
There is of course a debate to be had about whether water theft can be considered a crime at all. Water is a natural resource that we all have access to; one person cannot claim the world’s oceans or rivers.
But water in nature is untreated and pure. When theft occurs, it normally involves water which has been treated or transported through pipelines – procedures done at a cost to the water supplier in questions. These companies do not pay to process water only for it then to be taken from them for free.
Water theft is not just counted in financial terms. When water is obtained illegally, environmental laws will often be ignored at a devastating cost to nature. In some cases, it is a desire to avoid these laws that leads to water being stolen in the first place.
The Spanish strawberry growing case study included in the report highlighted the impact of not following environmental regulations on a migratory bird site which was meant to be protected.
Why steal water?
The number one reason for water theft is economic. Agricultural users account for 70 percent of the world’s water use and if you have a vast farm or site full of crops that need watering and animals who require feeding, then your water bill is likely to be significant. Stealing water can reduce overheads and increase profitability.
Scarcity of supplies is also a contributor to water theft. Human actions, climate change and natural variations in rainfall can lead to uncertainty and when that is the case, stealing water becomes commonplace – especially in areas which have experienced long droughts.
There is of course a certain irony to stealing water because there is not enough to go around. When water theft occurs, it further depletes resources. The more that is stolen, the less there is, the more that individuals or companies think they need to steal. It is a vicious circle that can be hard to break.
How can water theft be stopped?
One of the biggest problems when it comes to tackling water theft is detecting it in the first place. Those stealing water know that there is very little chance of being caught and that just encourages them to take more.
Technology might start to turn the tide back in the favour of water companies and governments. Advanced leak detection systems such as noise loggers allow water companies to monitor their supply networks for leaks, which they can then carry out emergency pipe repairs to. These devices could be used in the same way to identify water theft.
The report also advocates a big increase in the penalties for stealing water. A site that takes hundreds of thousands of litres knows that by the time they are caught – if they are caught – then the punishment for the crime is miniscule compared to the benefits of taking the water in the first place. It pays to steal.
Increasing awareness of the value of water, the cost of theft and the problems it causes might also help. If more people learn about the stealing of water and it becomes socially unacceptable, those carrying out the thefts may be reluctant to do so from a moral standpoint.
The public humiliation and bad publicity that would come with being exposed as a water thief combined with increased financial penalties should act as a big enough deterrent to drive the stealing of water down.
Finally, the world needs to address water shortages. If there were enough supplies of clean, safe water, then there would be no need to steal for reasons associated with scarcity. Better protection of existing resources is needed as well as significant investment in new ways of storing, treating and distributing water.
Who is responsible for preventing water theft?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the report is who it lays the blame with for water theft. While individuals who are taking water which they know they should be paying for are the ones doing the actual stealing, they are emboldened by the fact that nobody seems to want to tackle the problem.
Political and legal frameworks do not exist to prosecute those who steal water or protect resources. The report says that governments, regulators and communities need to come together to reassess how the world views and deals with water theft.
Without such a coordinated approach, the water theft figure will push past 50 percent – which would be bad news for the whole planet.
Read the full report into Grand theft water and the calculus of compliance