The World Economic Forum (WEF) has said that up to 50% of the global water supply is being stolen, according to its latest report.
The WEF says that water supplies are being pushed to their limits under rising populations, with agriculture the main culprit for the rising rate of illegal water abstraction, referencing a recently published paper from Nature stating that anywhere between 30-50% of the world’s water reserves are being extracted illegally.
According to a release from the World Economic Forum, agriculture accounts for around 70% of the globe’s water consumption, and illegal water abstraction is now posing “a challenge for humanity,” it says.
The WEF defines water theft as “using treated drinking water without paying for it,” or “taking water from natural resources in breach of environmental guidelines,” most commonly used for extremely water-intensive uses like agriculture.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide developed a framework that they used on three examples from around the world. One, a strawberry farm in Spain, the second, a cotton farm in Australia, and third, a marijuana crop in California.
The authors of the study say that “this paper provides a conceptual framework and modelling approach designed to improve understanding of both individual and institutional barriers to water theft.”
In their abstract, the authors note that “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.”
They continued to explain that “when regulators fail to understand the value of water, inadequate prescribed penalties increase the risk of theft… we invite others to test our framework, apply our model and engage in a wider conversation about water theft.”
When the reverse is applied, and people in that region understood water regulations, the authors say that rates of water theft dropped dramatically.
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The WEF notes that in the 20th century, Earth’s population more than tripled, which has caused a strain on water resources in key areas. The developing world remains lacking in the most basic of water resources, and the WEF notes that climate change is set to exacerbate the rate of water inequality.
“More than 2 billion people live in countries suffering high levels of water stress, and by 2040 a quarter of the world’s children will be living in areas of extreme water stress,” notes the WEF. “Water scarcity could lead to the displacement of up to 700 million people by 2030, the UN predicts.”
Data cited by the WEF from the World Water Council shows that domestic consumption of water accounts for just 10% of water use around the globe, while industry accounts for a 20% share, and evaporation another 4%.
The rest, the authors say, is down to the impact of agriculture on the world’s water supplies, which is set to get worse if rates of illegal water extraction continue to rise.
They are advocating for improved regulation and technology to aid in the fight against illegal water extraction, as scientists warn that the global water supply gap could widen to 40% by 2030.