The world is grappling with the escalating challenges of climate change and one issue lurks largely hidden: water scarcity. While official statistics paint a concerning picture, they often miss the underground currents of a burgeoning black market for water. In a new study, researchers explored the case study of Jordan — a nation at the forefront of this crisis. They showed how the unregulated sale of water is not only masking the true extent of water shortages but also creating a host of social and economic dilemmas.
Water scarcity has already beccome a prevalent problem in several parts of the world — and with climate change, it’s only going to get worse. Already, some 30 cities around the world suffer from severe water scarcity, meaning that many citizens have to get their drinking water from storage tanks, not the public distribution system.
Cities deal with this in different ways.
What often happens is that people from outside of these areas come in with large water tanks and sell the water to buyers. Sometimes, this is licensed by the state. More often, it is not.
“In Jordan, these water deliveries by tanker truck make up for the deficit of the public water supply network”, says Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) economist Dr. Christian Klassert, lead author of the study.
Klassert and colleagues focused on Jordan as it is highly at risk of water scarcity and has a thriving water black market. Unsurprisingly, they found that the water sold by these private actors is largely unrecorded by authorities.
“The official data on well extractions for truck water deliveries does not reflect the actual situation. They are considerably lower because the black market for water from tanker trucks had so far not been quantified”.
This is problematic for several reasons. For starters, the real water scarcity in these cities is unknown, because it’s not clear how much of the problem private sellers can cover. Secondly, as long as someone else is offering a patchy solution, there’s less pressure on the state to find actual, sustainable solutions. Also, people in neighboring areas could thusly be putting pressure on their own water supplies.
In order to assess the situation and see how things can be improved, researchers then proceeded to build a model of this market.
The problem with studying this water black market (as with any black market) is that data on it is scarce. Nevertheless, UFZ and Stanford researchers were able to piece together some information by asking well owners and tanker drivers how much water they use and sell, how great the distances between the well and the sales market are, and how frequently they take these routes. From this, they created a model to estimate how big the black market is. They took 2015 as a reference year.
The model suggested that the amount of water sold in Jordan was almost 11 times greater than the amount legally allowed for sale.
“The implications of illegal water deliveries by tanker truck have been completely underestimated so far”, says Klassert.
This becomes even more problematic when you factor in the reality that water scarcity, and therefore the importance of this water market, is about to increase.
“Household dependence on water tanks will increase 2.6-fold by 2050 — from 4.6% of the population to 12%”, says co-author and UFZ economist Prof. Dr Erik Gawel. The main reasons for this are high population growth and decreasing groundwater supplies.
This will likely increase the price of the illegal water, probably beyond the affordable levels of some households. What will these households do? “In these cases, the state would have to intervene. For example, by improving the state water supply or subsidising the purchase of water for these populations”, he says.
Infrastructure matters so much
Remarkably, the market isn’t exactly the Wild West — researchers found some signs of self-regulation in the market. The prices don’t appear to be arbitrarily inflated, but rather realistically reflect the production, personnel, and transport costs. This can already help to predict how the market will evolve in the future, as scarcity increases.
So what can the state try to do when it comes to regulating this practice? The Jordanian government seems to follow a straightforward approach: it tries to shut down illegal wells. But this study shows that this doesn’t really seem to work, and it also has a big impact on the people who rely on that water.
“Although this stabilises the decline in the groundwater table, it has negative consequences for the poorer sections of the population, who are dependent on the supply of drinking water via tanker trucks and can thus no longer afford the water”, says co-author Prof. Dr Bernd Klauer, a water economist at the UFZ who researches water scarcity and water quality problems.
Instead, researchers suggest investing in infrastructure. The first thing they can do is build large desalination plants, which is what other countries in the area have also done. But another, perhaps more efficient investment would be repairing existing pipes. A lot of water is lost through these pipes.
“If the state were to invest in the deteriorating water pipes, this could curb the increase in uncontrolled groundwater extraction to 19% by 2050. That’s because not only would less water be lost but the water supplied would also be distributed more equitably”, says Klauer.
If both pipe repair and desalination plants happen, this could finally ensure water availability and curb the black market. No matter how you look at it, there’s no reason for the state not to act. The more they delay action, the costlier the effects will be for the population.
“The scale of the water deliveries shows how insecure access to drinking water already is in Jordan. The population is also growing rapidly — especially because the country has taken in many refugees from Iraq and Syria. The problems of drinking water supply will not disappear but rather become increasingly more pressing”, concludes. Klassert.
The study was published in Nature.