Water remains one of the most important resources for humanity. As the planet’s climate crisis continues to sink in its teeth, intense droughts and mass water shortages are only set to increase, fuelling geopolitical tensions and leading to armed conflict. Even today, access to water is a major source of control, legal disputes, and theft.
New research, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, argues that between 30 and 50 percent of the world’s water is stolen. The report argues that the issue of “grand theft water” remains remarkably misunderstood and underappreciated by authorities. That's going to have to change, however, considering water shortages and tensions of access are starting to becoming increasingly compounded by climate change on all of Earth's continents.
Water theft has a number of definitions. There is, of course, the point about whether a natural resource as fundamental as water can be owned as property and stolen, especially in regards to individuals “stealing water.” However, the term namely refers to agriculture and industry improperly siphoning off water on a large-scale and affecting the supply to others. According to the report, this is of particular concern because up to 70 percent of the planet’s water supply is used for agriculture.
A clear example of this is the water theft that occurs on avocado plantations in South America and Central America. Avocados take huge volumes of water to grow; you need around 320 liters of applied water to grow a single avocado in some parts of the world. As such, the demand for water in avocado-growing regions is hot. Amnesty International and Danwatch have previously reported that increasing demand for avocado has seen water being drained from groundwater and rivers in the avocado-growing region of Petorca in Chile, only to be stored in private reservoirs that feed huge corporate-owned farms. This results in rivers literally drying up and families struggling to access water.
Petorca is an especially severe example, but there are hundreds of similar stories being played out across the world. The new report examines three case studies in developed economies where water theft is becoming increasingly common: marijuana cropping in Northern California, strawberry cultivation in the Doñana marshlands in southern Spain, and cotton growing in the Barwon-Darling River system in central Australia.
All three activities are highly profitable and water-intensive yet take place in regions where water can be scarce and unpredictable, creating the perfect ingredients for water theft.
The new report argues that part of the problem is that “water regulators have little capacity to meaningfully affect exogenous conviction probabilities.” In other words, current policy is toothless against the problem. A violation of water codes will often mean little more than a fine, which is quickly paid off and forgotten by any large agri-business corporation. In all three case studies, the researchers found that the penalty for violations of water theft is a fine that’s significantly less than the potential money these cultivators will make from the violation.
In light of the problem, the researchers argue that policymakers need to start appreciating how serious the problem has become. From here, they could start to roll out new efforts to detect water theft, either through real-time metering of water extraction, patrols, or satellite imagery.
"Consistent with earlier research, the case studies clearly support the importance of well-resourced (financial and human) enforcement and compliance monitoring especially in the remoter parts of delivery systems, to increase the probability of detection and prosecution as an important driver of theft reduction," the study authors write.