Climate change, intensive agriculture, needless wastage, industrial-scale pollution. These are some of the main causes that are posing grave threats to freshwater sources across much of the planet.
We can also add another: theft.
Between a third and a half of the planet’s freshwater used by people gets stolen, which is to say taken illegally by businesses and people alike, according to the authors of a new paper. The amount that is taken this way illegally amounts to vast quantities each day.
The phenomenon isn’t new, of course. Throughout history people have taken natural resources, including water, that wasn’t theirs by right to take, yet the scale of the problem may come as quite a shock.
Nor is water theft limited to particular areas. “Ongoing water shortages occur on all continents, increasingly compounded by climate change,” the authors write. As freshwater sources are getting increasingly depleted, the scale of theft is gathering pace across the planet.
To gauge the extent of the problem, the researchers examined three cases of improper water use for growing crops in agriculture: marijuana in California in the United States, strawberries in Spain, and cotton in Australia. All three crops requite water-intensive cultivation.
What the researchers found as a common theme in these three different cases on three different continents is that water theft makes economic sense for cultivators, especially during periods such as droughts when freshwater is scarcer than usual.
The reason is that lax regulation and weak enforcement facilitate the wanton appropriation of freshwater for agricultural cultivation, which accounts for some 70% of global freshwater use.
“Our findings suggest that while individuals and companies may be responsible for the act of theft, the phenomenon reflects a systematic failure of arrangements (political, legal, institutional, and so on),” the experts note. “In addition, when regulators fail to understand the value of water, inadequate prescribed penalties increase the risk of theft.”
In other words, even when culprits get caught, the penalties are not severe enough to deter further water theft. The solution lies in treating freshwater as a valuable natural resource whose theft carries severe financial penalties. That way, a legal deterrent, if enforced, can serve to protect freshwater sources from further large-scale theft.
“By addressing likely drivers of theft at an individual scale, we may prevent irreversible harm to all water users,” the scientists argue. “[T]he 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.”
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