Understanding the drivers behind water theft will lead to better policy outcomes

River Murray

As the global demand for water grows through ever-expanding cities and increased pressure from agriculture, we’re faced with the very real prospect of future shortages.

As it becomes a scarcer resource, the incidence of water theft will increase. Whilst the spotlight on water theft in Australia has increased in the last few years, research and analysis of the global data behind it has been limited – until now. 

Research from the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Global Food & Resources, School of Economics and Public Policy has investigated what drives people to steal water, and how it is impacted by different circumstance, such as drought and even variations in penalties and legal consequences.

Looking at case studies in Spain, the USA and Australia, the work by Associate Professor Adam Loch is the first of its kind to consider the drivers of water theft to better understand what motivates perpetrators. The team also considered differences in legal consequences of water theft across various countries as low penalties are rarely reflective of the real value of water which can be in the millions of dollars.

“We constructed a framework to bring together all the drivers of water theft.” says Associate Professor Loch. “This includes institutional drivers like theft detection mechanisms, and natural drivers like drought, to better understand what motivates such activity.”

They also created a model to test different institutional settings, such as weaker legal barriers to theft, to illustrate how they exacerbate water theft via low penalties. This highlighted the role effective penalties play, and the level they could be set at to be an effective deterrent.

What’s next?

Many economic analyses are not well-suited to risky or uncertain futures, which describes expected water supply under climate change. The team next plans to employ their model and theory to as many cases across the globe as possible. As part of that process, they will also create scenarios that mimic those future supply conditions, and test how current or proposed legal institutions and penalty settings will perform. This will provide useful evidence to water managers globally.

Examining drivers for water theft and the impact of penalties is history in the making as it’s a first for research in this field and is providing much needed depth to find better solutions for this growing global problem.

Featured researcher

Associate Professor Adam Loch
Centre for Global Food & Resources
School of Economics and Public Policy
The Faculty of the Professions 

Tagged in Environment, sustainability and climate change, environmental policy, featured, agriculture