As much as 30% to 50% of the world’s water supply is stolen annually, with the agricultural sector largely to blame, according to a new study. The findings highlight the lack of information behind water theft and the relevance of the issue amid a global competition for water.
While there’s no agreed-on definition of water theft, it essentially involves taking water in violation of regulations. It can be anything from installing unauthorized connections to water distribution systems or tampering with meters, to tapping boreholes without licenses, all with the objective of not paying for water.
There’s a lack of accurate data around water theft, partly because those that steal the resource are often poor, vulnerable, and at-risk in developing countries, although there are also cases in the developed world. With that in mind, a group of researchers developed a novel framework and model, which they applied to three case studies.
The framework and model created by the researchers are aimed at helping water managers to test the impact of changes in detection, prosecution, and conviction systems, as well as accurately measuring the effectiveness of current penalties (which may not provide an effective deterrent).
“As the scarcity of our most precious resource increases due to climate change and other challenges, so too do the drivers for water theft,” said Loch in a press release. “If users are motivated to steal water because it is scarce, and they need it to keep a crop alive, then the opportunity cost of that water may far exceed the penalty, and theft will occur.”
Adam Lock from the University of Adelaide and his team looked at cotton farms in Australia, marijuana cropping in the US, and strawberry fields in Spain. They found that water theft increases when governments fail to support detection and prosecution, when there is uncertainty regarding water availability in the future, and when social attitudes regarding water theft are permissive. They suggest that stronger disincentives might be needed to dissuade users from stealing water.
One example of water theft came to light in Australia in 2017, for example, when a government program found cases of cotton irrigators taking water against embargoes. The program also found a lack of metering in parts of the country and inadequate rules regarding the use of water, making such embargoes difficult to apply.
The government implemented new water-sharing rules, appointed a new regulator, and allocated more resources to the enforcement of water laws. This had led to a large number of prosecutions. Nevertheless, progress has been slow in installing meters in some parts of the country, the researchers argue.
“A significant percentage of extractions across Australia are not metered or otherwise properly measured,” the special counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office, Dr. Emma Carmody, who participated in the study, told The Guardian.
“This is a critical issue as it makes it very difficult to assess the extent of non-compliance with water laws, which has a knock-on effect on the environment.”
The researchers said there are many cases of water theft that could be studied using the (free) framework and model that they created, encouraging institutions to use these tools. Recovering some of the “lost” water would be useful for the world’s water supply, they argue.
The study was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
A limited resource
The United Nations sets the minimum water requirement per person at 50 liters per day. This is based on the idea that a person drinks about two liters per day, using the rest for cooking, washing, and sanitation. While people in water-stressed countries can’t meet that level, the average use in the US is between 400 to 600 liters per person a day.
Agriculture gobbles up around 70% of the water that is consumed globally. While it’s an economically relevant sector and can take people out of poverty, it can also massively deplete water resources. For example, it takes 140 liters of water to make a cup of coffee, with most of the water used on growing the coffee plant.
The way water is distributed around the world doesn’t match local supply and demand. China has 40 times more people than Canada but has much less water, for example. Thirteen Arab countries are among the world’s 19 most water-scarce nations. Even water-rich countries such as Brazil have had water scarcity problems in the past.
There’s intense competition for water resources around the world, likely to intensify due to population growth, urbanization, overuse of water, environmental degradation, and climate change. Groundwater is argued to become the main supply in the future, as surface water gets depleted or becomes polluted. Nevertheless, tapping groundwater also faces a wide array of challenges on its own.