A framework and tools for tackling water theft

© iStock / ieang
© iStock / ieang

By Lis Stedman

The theft of water is an under-explored issue, but it is clear that legality or illegality is extremely complex and not always clear-cut, especially when theft is due to ignorance, or simple desperation.

A new paper seeks to outline a conceptual framework and modelling approach that is intended to improve understanding of the individual and institutional barriers that exist and how effective detection, prosecution, conviction, and penalties can be assessed.

A basic issue is the difficulty of determining what is actually happening. The paper is the result of a study led by Dr Adam Loch of the Centre for Global Food and Resources at Australia’s University of Adelaide. Dr Loch, says: “It is actually very hard to know just how bad the global situation is. Water theft is essentially where anyone steals water that does not belong to them, and it is highly plausible that because of the nature of water – that is, it typically flows in open access channels or rivers – the global problem is very high.”

Theft will happen most frequently where the institutions that are supposed to prevent it fail

The lack of concrete data also makes determining the severity of the situation problematic, he points out, though there are basic rules. “It is hard to say categorically where it happens most often as the data is very poor… but theft will happen most frequently where the institutions that are supposed to prevent it fail. Thus, in countries where theft monitoring, detection, prosecution, and conviction mechanisms are poor, then theft will likely be higher. This is because thieves don’t self-report; the poor may be intimidated into keeping quiet, or if reliant upon theft to survive they will clearly not speak out against it; officials may see vulnerable groups as requiring protection from prosecution over theft and / or view the issue as inconsequential. Either way, we have very little real data to work with, which hampers efforts to recognise the issue and a call to arms to deal with it. Overall though, any water theft will have substantial impacts on those that are left without the water resources they expected.”

Identifying failure points

The tools that the paper suggests for use in combating water theft are not just intended for use by regulators, Loch adds. “Our framework basically points out how we can assess current water theft-prevention institutions and identify where the failure points might lie. So, if we think about the growing problem in theft, being able to look at our systems now and figure out how they need to be improved before we reach that level of future theft would be a smart investment.

“In the case of our work, we can also determine the effectiveness of penalties and how they may or may not provide effective deterrents to theft. Therefore, water managers, regulators, users themselves, monitoring agencies, prosecutors and so on all have an important role to play in identifying those weaknesses, and then assessing attempts to improve them in response to the insights from our analysis tools.”

There is not, however, one particular correct way to use these tools, because of the many potential issues creating the situation, he points out. “There is no right or wrong way as such. It, as usual, depends on the context, but we have deliberately set up the tools to allow a broad range of situations and requirements. If those contexts go through the process that we have outlined, they will clearly see where their individual or component parts to the system fail, and then they can also see how that might improve if they invest to change that element of the system.

“For example, if we study the system and it tells us that the legal arrangements are poor, then if we identify how to improve them – and make that change in the framework – we can see if it is enough to provide a useful solution. More likely, we will need to change a range of issues to make it work best.”

Furthermore, the potential situations are very complex – the paper observes that amnesties do not work, and it appears that fear of detection/prosecution is an important factor in what the authors call the ‘compliance calculation’. There are many prime drivers both for water stealing and preventing it from happening, Loch suggests. “In short, increasing scarcity is driving our concern about growth in future water theft, where globally water is becoming a very limited resource. But there are many different drivers: some people just don’t care about others and steal because they think they are entitled to do so; some feel that rules are unfair and therefore don’t apply to them; some are disadvantaged and steal because they have to; while others are opportunistic and recognise failings in the system that they can take advantage of, as discussed above.

Increasing scarcity

“An increasing driver of theft, we believe, is increasing scarcity of water resources globally. As water and access to water decreases, then the motives for people to steal it will increase. This is a huge looming problem – on top of all the other problems we already have with global water management and security – that should also feature in our thinking and discussions about solutions.”

The authors envisage many different approaches in terms of use of the tools being adopted in different parts of the world, although as yet there are no ‘best case’ examples that could be followed, Loch concludes. “That was in fact the main aim of the paper: to have other countries or water management contexts take our tools and analysis techniques to see if they have value for them in addressing/assessing this risk. The model was kept simple to enable others to adapt it as needed, and we explain how this could be achieved in practice.

“At present, there are really no ‘best practice’ examples that we could identify, but it is also early days on this work where we hope to keep exploring the issue and come up with novel extensions that are useful to others. It is only through such a process that we will get beyond where we are with theft currently and begin to tackle it better.”

More information: Grand theft water and the calculus of compliance, Nature Sustainability. A Loch, CD Pérez-Blanco, E Carmody, V Felbab-Brown, D Adamson and C Seidl