InDepth: World Wide Water Mafia #05: Complex Tactics of Water Theft in in Urban Areas

IC InDepth Team

Mumbai, 30 August 2019

In various global regions, including not only impoverished urban zones but also more affluent urban sectors, water theft can take on intricate dimensions.

Beyond the utilization of illicit hydrants, wells, and taps, cities like Rio de Janeiro, Medellín, Mumbai, Karachi, and Tijuana witness the implementation of extensive illegal pipelines and the extraction of water from diverse sources such as official pipelines, rivers, canals, and wells.

Subsequently, this unlawfully procured water is distributed through unauthorized water tankers.

It’s important to note that not all entities supplying water to the urban poor are illicit actors or source water in direct violation of regulations.

Some function as informal entities, operating outside the bounds of established taxation.

Emergence of Criminal Actors in Illicit Water Markets

As illicitly sourced and smuggled water markets take shape, criminal elements exploit the gaps left by states that are unable or unwilling to provide adequate water services to their populace.

Lagos, a significant economic hub in Nigeria, offers an illuminating case study.

Early British colonial efforts to enhance public health and sanitation in the city, along with combatting diseases like malaria, eventually transitioned into a policy segregating affluent and healthy enclaves from the rest of the urban population.

Consequently, during the post-independence era in the 1960s, only a mere 10 percent of Lagos’ residences had access to municipal water, leaving the remainder reliant on polluted creeks, communal taps, and wells.

The sewage situation was even direr, with a virtually non-existent system in place.

Regrettably, subsequent Nigerian administrations not only failed to rectify this predicament but allowed it to deteriorate further.

By the mid-2000s, a mere 5 percent of households were connected to piped water, while less than 1 percent (primarily high-income residents and hotels) enjoyed a closed sewer network.

For the majority, private sellers became the lifeline, with some operating within legal parameters and others illicitly. Many impoverished residents rely entirely on water tankers, illegal “water mafias,” and other unauthorized suppliers, including local “area boys” vending water in plastic bags of questionable quality and origin, alongside illegal boreholes and connections.

Consequently, slum inhabitants are compelled to choose between unclean water or overpriced water from illicit private providers, straining already fragile household finances.

Illegal Water Pipelines and Organized Vendors in Nairobi’s Mathare Slum

Nairobi’s Mathare slum, yet another of Africa’s largest and most impoverished urban settlements, grapples with the absence of established legal water pipelines.

Instead, water is propelled into the slum’s neighborhoods via illicit pipelines interconnected with the city’s official water distribution network.

However, this pilfered water isn’t offered free of cost—it is managed by organized, albeit illicit, vendors.

Analogous to the situation in India, where locals often refer to a “water mafia,” denizens of the slum term these distributors as “water cartels.”

While not exactly akin to economic cartels, they frequently vend the unauthorized water at prices eight times higher than the official rates, rendering it financially inaccessible for the most economically vulnerable, including the unemployed segment of the population.

Comparable illicit water distribution networks are active in Kenya’s other major urban centers, such as Mombasa.

Even in rural settings, water can be surreptitiously siphoned and transported via unauthorized pipelines spanning significant distances.

Notably, in Kenya’s Makueni, Machakos, and Kajiado counties, local farmers unlawfully tap into water pipelines, precipitating acute water scarcities in nearby towns.

Water Theft and Smuggling in Karachi and Indian Cities

In both Pakistan’s Karachi and major cities of India such as Delhi and Mumbai, well-organized water theft and smuggling networks thrive.

In Pakistan, a considerable portion of water is pilfered via illicit connections even before it reaches the city, diverting it en route from Keenjhar Lake, about 120 km northeast of Karachi, and the Hub Dam, approximately 60 km northwest.

After enduring years of drought, excessive use, and rampant water theft, the dam’s water level has plummeted to only a few feet above the so-called “dead level,” whereas its maximum capacity would position it 63 feet above this critical threshold.

These waterways are further compromised by extensive illegal connections for agricultural purposes. Periodically, paramilitary forces are deployed to dismantle these illicit links, seize the diesel engines powering them, and apprehend some of the culprits (typically lower-level individuals).

However, these unauthorized hookups are promptly repaired and reinstated. Within the city limits, illegal water operators erect unauthorized hydrants, with their number exceeding legal hydrants by sixfold.

Yet, even the 20 legal hydrants fall far short for a city housing over 20 million residents and still expanding. These illegal hydrants are predominantly situated in affluent neighborhoods like Clifton and the Defense Housing Authority.

Even owners of legal hydrants flout regulations, frequently colluding with officials from the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) to extract more water than permitted, often vending it to high-rise buildings and commercial as well as industrial entities.

Interestingly, the initial pioneers of illegal water hydrants, believed to have established the first ones around 1995—Taj Muhammad Kohistani and Ajab Khan—are widely suspected to have been backed by industrialists seeking to support their business operations.

In present times, illegal water suppliers drill connections into legitimate pipelines, clandestinely running unauthorized ones over substantial distances to reach the city’s industrial establishments.

According to estimates, around 80 percent of the approximately 3,000 industrial units in the Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate (SITE) of the city rely on a combination of lawful and unlawful water supply sources.

Water Scarcity and Criminal Networks in Delhi

Delhi, with a population of 17 million, faces a staggering daily deficit of 207 million gallons (786.6 million liters) of water, creating an environment ripe for the operation of water smuggling mafias.

This theft of water exacerbates the already dire shortages, further entrenching a damaging cycle.

The sprawling slums and unauthorized colonies, including the largest, Sangam Vihar, lack access to water pipelines and are devoid of public wells and hydrants.

Compounded by their unofficial status and lack of land titles, these settlements are mostly ineligible for formal infrastructure extension. Even areas connected to the public water system receive only a few hours of water supply each day.

Filling this void are private suppliers and racketeers who profit by delivering water at inflated prices, setting up illegal hydrants, establishing unauthorized connections, and predominantly transporting stolen or unlawfully sold water. In the city, about 2,000 such private trucks ply their trade daily.

Among these, Ramanand Sharma, operating Keshav Water Supplies, is widely regarded as one of the illicit “tanker kings” of water distribution. Sharma’s clientele extends beyond impoverished neighborhoods to encompass middle-class households, charging 3,000 rupees (roughly $45) for a 5,000-liter water tank. Regrettably, the brunt of these excessive prices is borne by the impoverished.

Many underprivileged Indians are forced to allocate approximately 20 percent of their meager income to procure the recommended daily minimum of 50 liters per person.

Despite regular police interceptions of Sharma’s tankers, his bribery ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 rupees (approximately $150-450) allows his operations to persist.

Challenges and Promises of Political Initiatives

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), elected with a populist and presumed anti-corruption mandate to govern Delhi in 2015, pledged universal free water and vowed to tackle water mafias by extending pipelines to slum areas.

However, many of its core commitments remain unfulfilled. Earlier efforts to supply free water faltered, as government-sanctioned water tankers served primarily middle-class families who paid bribes for the privilege.

Similar to previous administrations,82 sporadic crackdowns on illegal tube wells on private properties are orchestrated by the city’s water commission—the Delhi Jal Board (DJB).

Nevertheless, without the installation of legitimate connections delivering sufficient water and without pricing mechanisms to curb wasteful consumption, illegal connections are swiftly reestablished.

The AAP has also introduced GPS tracers on government-authorized trucks to monitor and prevent their unauthorized diversions to unapproved areas.

Diverse Nature of Water Providers

Though the populace commonly employs terms like “water cartels” or “water mafias,” the actual structures of these illegal or semi-legal suppliers display considerable variation.

While some may adopt hierarchical models, others are characterized by high levels of decentralization.

Instances, such as the unauthorized settlement Divina Providencia in Tijuana, witness the absence of organized water mafias, as the community independently manages and regulates its illicit water utilization.

Community-Managed Water Diversion in Divina Providencia Slum

In the heart of Divina Providencia slum, a network of unauthorized settlements has sprung up around the city’s official water canal.

Ingeniously, these settlements have tapped into the canal through illicit water pipes, redirecting the water to the uppermost reaches of the settlements.

Orchestrating this illicit water distribution is a democratically elected water committee, comprising seven members who are chosen annually from among the slum’s residents.

This committee assumes an array of responsibilities, including the allocation of access to the covert water network. This entails determining who is granted permission to access the water and under what frequency.

Additionally, the committee takes charge of maintaining the physical infrastructure of the clandestine water distribution system.

A pivotal role undertaken by the committee involves resolving disputes arising from water usage.

Their interventions extend to convincing a “comelón” (literally, a “water hog”) within the community to abide by the committee’s water allocation quota. When these conflict-resolution endeavors fall short, the committee resorts to legal action against individuals pilfering water from the community’s supply—despite the supply itself being illicit in nature.

A parallel situation unfolds in the illegal settlements nestled within Tijuana’s river canal and sewer system. Here, the community appoints a leader tasked with arbitrating disputes, shielding inhabitants from police interventions, and issuing permits for newcomers to reside within the area.

These instances from Tijuana underscore that much of the global illegal water sourcing and smuggling is marked by a certain degree of order and regulation. This pattern mirrors the dynamics of various other illegal natural resource economies.

Diverse Forms of Water Theft in Mexico

Mexico’s tapestry of water theft is woven from a multitude of threads. While the introduction of the Public Register of Water Rights, an electronic database, has contributed to mitigating certain forms of water theft, a substantial number of individuals and entities continue evading their water payment obligations.

The awarding of contracts remains shrouded in opacity, providing a breeding ground for further malfeasance. Rampant instances of illegal water diversion and drainage by industries and agricultural enterprises persist, as do incidents of dumping wastewater onto beaches.

Intriguingly, there are instances wherein illegal water utilization is paradoxically more structured and regulated than its legal counterpart.

Global Agricultural Water Challenges: Water Misuse and Unauthorized Usage

The rampant misuse of water resources, coupled with the proliferation of illegal water usage, extends its grip across agricultural landscapes worldwide—from Mexico to India.

Within numerous regions, agricultural practitioners resort to drilling deeper wells as a remedy, a practice that often straddles the thin line of legality depending on jurisdictional regulations.

Irrespective of its legal status, this practice engenders pronounced inefficiencies in policy and, at times, stark policy failures. The repercussions are severe, as subterranean aquifers bear the brunt of depletion, igniting a chain reaction of detrimental environmental outcomes—manifested as land subsidence, to name one.

Notably, India grapples with an additional layer of complexity. The inadequately addressed recourse to deeper well drilling is further exacerbated by the presence of low-cost, subsidized electricity, paradoxically fueling the amplified use of drilling equipment at progressively greater depths.

While this challenge has been recognized for decades, India’s political landscape has hindered the implementation of electricity price hikes requisite to curbing water profligacy.

Deep Well Digging’s Echo in California

The phenomenon of delving deeper into the earth to tap water reserves echoes not only across international borders but also resonates closer to home in California—a scenario legal but laden with complications.

Within the state’s boundaries, the act of paying for deeper wells frequently spurs the exhaustion of neighboring communities’ water reserves, igniting local tensions.

Typically, around a third of California’s water supply is sourced from subterranean reservoirs in standard years.

However, during periods of recent drought, this proportion surged to as much as 75 percent. This shift in water source alignment prompted the issuance of drilling permits on a much grander scale than what was witnessed a decade or two prior.

The result is a complex scenario where the legality of the action does not dilute its potential for generating conflicts and furthering water scarcity concerns.

Yemen’s Qat Cultivation and Water Crisis

In Yemen, the cultivation of qat, a legal mild narcotic extensively chewed in the Horn of Africa but illegal in the United States, engenders dire environmental consequences despite being the country’s primary agricultural product.

This water-intensive plant is cultivated in a nation grappling with severe water scarcity, positioning Yemen among the most water-distressed countries globally.

Astonishingly, an overwhelming 99 percent of water drilling within Yemen occurs without licenses, firmly establishing its illegality. In the capital city of Sana’a, the rate of water extraction far outpaces replenishment, surpassing it by a staggering factor of four.

Even before the eruption of the recent phase of civil conflict, in 2010, the cost of a liter of water soared to $0.15—a significant figure within a nation where the average daily income amounts to a mere $2.89.

If adhering to the U.N.’s recommended daily minimum of 50 liters per person for water consumption, the cost would escalate to a prohibitive $7.50 per individual, casting an unattainable burden on a substantial portion of Yemen’s population.

Peri-Urban Areas and the Nexus of Illicit Water Markets

The outskirts of major cities, referred to as peri-urban areas, often serve as the nucleus for thriving illegal water markets.

These locales not only witness the illicit diversion of water resources for urban agriculture but also play a pivotal role in the influx of smuggled water into the cities.

Additionally, they become the recipients of urban-generated wastewater and frequently fall prey to illegal dumping practices.

This pattern is prominently observable in India, where the intricate dynamics of informal and illegal water markets bridge the urban-peri-urban gap.

Amid challenges of unemployment and subsistence livelihoods, impoverished rural households around major cities like Delhi or Hyderabad succumb to the allure of vending their water to illicit enterprises. While such transactions might offer immediate financial relief in the short term, outweighing meager agricultural earnings, the longer-term ramifications are profound.

Depletion of their water resources not only jeopardizes their income sources but also undermines the resilience of their overall revenue streams.

Smuggling and Depletion in Peri-Urban Areas

Smugglers engage in nefarious activities that extend beyond the realm of illegal water trade. They clandestinely drain lakes and rivers within peri-urban areas, causing severe depletion of surface water resources.

Moreover, they trespass on public lands to drill unauthorized wells, exacerbating the depletion of groundwater reservoirs.

This complex scenario effectively results in the urban middle classes and industries effectively purchasing water resources from beneath the disadvantaged peri-urban poor.

The Role of Rural Rights and Smuggling Dynamics

Complicating this situation is the presence of a right for rural populations in India to drill wells for agricultural purposes, coupled with subsidized energy provision to operate drilling equipment.

However, smugglers subvert these mechanisms by reselling water to industries beyond the permissible limits defined by water permits and regulations.

This black-market water is also supplied to middle-class households for domestic consumption.

As a result, some peri-urban communities find themselves increasingly reliant on water mafias to fulfill their essential water needs, cementing the control and influence of these illicit actors over vital resources.

Next: InDepth: World Wide Water Mafia #06: Root Causes and Regulatory Failures


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