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With water resources becoming rarer, they have become more coveted


According to Interpol, every year between 30 and 50% of the world’s water resources are pillaged in total impunity. The agricultural sector is accused as the main culprit, in a situation of hydric stress that aggravates the fear of lacking water. But is it the only reason? Although worrying, this phenomenon has hardly been investigated.



The first study carried out


Researchers at Adelaide University in Australia wanted to understand the factors behind these thefts of water and better identify the phenomenon at the international scale. In their study (link to published on 24 August in the review Nature Sustainability, the first observation that stands out is that every country, whatever its level of development, is concerned by these water thefts and that the culprits have many profiles, ranging from private individuals to industrial corporations. However, one motive appears to predominate: these thefts are mostly intended to irrigate crops, which consume 70% of global extractions of ground and surface water, known on an official basis. This pillage can be explained by agricultural needs and the fear of lacking water, further aggravating shortages!


The study gives the example of Spain where one million illegal wells have been sunk to compensate the shortage of water. These wells are mostly located in the province of Huelva (Andalusia), the centre of strawberry production.



Regulations full of loopholes


According to the researchers, this phenomenon is further aggravated by political inertia and the failure of the repressive system. The case studies they carried out (cotton production in Australia, marijuana production in the United States and strawberries in Spain) show that when the authorities do nothing to detect or punish theft, it inevitably increases.

Moreover, there’s no certainty that financial sanctions in the form of fines would, alone, prove effective. For Adam Loch, coordinator of the study and researcher at the Centre of Global Food and Resources at Adelaide University

“if the users are motivated to steal water because it’s rare, and they need it to keep their crops alive, then the cost of opportunity of this water may far exceed that of the penalty, meaning that theft will take place

Sanctions and monitoring therefore go hand in hand with an adequate regulatory framework for identifying the water stolen and controlling illegal extractions; and, finally, through managing the resource as thriftily as possible, by not focusing only on improving the efficiency of the extractions.


Cause for concern in Australia


In 2017, an investigative media outlet made public the case of cotton producers extracting water in the Barwon-Darling region of the Murray-Darlin basin to the detriment of the environment and indigenous communities downstream. The investigation also showed the inadequacy of water meters in New South Wales, in the southeast part of the country, and the insufficiency of the water sharing standards applied.

Since then, the rules of distribution have been revised and a new independent regulator has been appointed in this State, given stronger means to ensure better control. Several lawsuits have met with success in the courts.


On the other hand, in the Barwon-Darling region, the installation of water meters is making slow progress and a considerable number of extractions in the Murray-Darling basin are not measured correctly or measured at all, according to Dr Emma Carmody, a lawyer specialised in the environment and special counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office (the oldest centre of environmental law in the public interest in Australia), which contributed to the study. According to her:

“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, traditional owners and downstream users “.

The problem is all the more acute in this country insofar as water has become a scarce and precious commodity: “We can’t afford to ‘guess’ whether people are taking more than their fair share or not”

For Adam Loch, the combat against illegal water extractions must be made a priority when the next stage of the Murray-Darling Bain plan is debated.


To go further… 


Water system disturbances and attempts to regulate them are ancient. Nevertheless, the increase in extreme events in recent years invites us to reflect on the challenges related to water and the best ways to deal with growing instability. This is what Katherine Daniell proposes in her article « Water systems and disruptions : the ‘old abnormal’ ? », published in Issue 24 of the Australasian Journal of Water Resources.

Katherine Daniell, an Australian doctor and researcher at the Australian National University, specializing in water governance and participatory processes, is a member of IAGF. She is also a member of the Australian Water Engineering Committee.

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