Climate change, intensive agriculture, unnecessary waste, pollution on an industrial scale. These are some of the main causes that pose serious threats to freshwater sources in much of the planet.
We can also add another: theft.
Between a third and a half of the planet's fresh water used by people is stolen, that is, illegally extracted by companies and individuals alike, according to the authors of a new article. The amount taken in this way illegally amounts to large amounts every day.
The phenomenon is not new, of course. Throughout history, people have taken natural resources, including water, that were not theirs by right to take, yet the scale of the problem can be quite an impact.
Water theft is also not limited to particular areas. "Continued water scarcity occurs on every continent, increasingly aggravated by climate change," the authors write. As freshwater sources become increasingly depleted, the scale of theft is accelerating across the planet.
To gauge the extent of the problem, the researchers examined three cases of inappropriate water use for agricultural crops: marijuana in California in the United States, strawberries in Spain, and cotton in Australia. All three crops require intensive water cultivation.
What the researchers found to be a common theme in these three different cases on three different continents is that water theft makes economic sense for growers, especially during periods like droughts when fresh water is scarcer than usual.
The reason is that lax regulation and weak enforcement facilitate the rampant appropriation of freshwater for agricultural cultivation, which accounts for around 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 the arrangements (political, legal, institutional, etc.)," say the experts. "In addition, when regulators do not understand the value of water, inappropriate prescribed penalties increase the risk of theft."
In other words, even when the culprits are caught, the penalties are not severe enough to deter water theft. The solution lies in treating fresh water as a valuable natural resource whose theft carries severe financial penalties. In that way, a legal deterrent, if applied, can serve to protect freshwater sources from further large-scale theft.
"By addressing potential drivers of theft at the individual level, we can prevent irreversible damage to all water users," argue the scientists. “The case studies clearly support the importance of monitoring compliance and enforcement with sufficient resources (financial and human), especially in the most remote parts of delivery systems, to increase the likelihood of detection and prosecution as an important factor in reducing theft ”.