Water Mafia of Mumbai #01: Unveiling Water Theft and Smuggling

Vivek Agrawal

Mumbai, 15 August 2019

Freshwater, a lifeline for human survival, health, agriculture, energy production, industrial operations, and the global economy, is equally crucial for the well-being of animals, plants, and natural ecosystems.

The specter of water scarcity, whether rooted in natural calamities, pollution, poor water management, or unlawful acquisition, presents dire consequences.

This investigative news series delves deep into the contentious and emerging issues of water theft and smuggling, shedding light on the policy oversights that foster illicit water markets worldwide.

The Controversial Realm of Water Theft

The subject matter is rife with controversy due to the absence of a shared definition regarding the parameters of water theft and smuggling. The existence of such phenomena remains a subject of contention.

While news articles worldwide, especially in regions grappling with severe drought and water deficits, are drawing attention to the surging problem of water theft, a unanimous consensus remains elusive.

Water scholars, water-centric non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governmental bodies, and communities diverge on whether the concept of water theft holds any validity.

Divergent Ideologies in Water Management and Access

Two prevailing perspectives shape the discourse on water utilization and accessibility. The first school of thought posits water as an inherent human entitlement, opposing the imposition of charges, especially when prices escalate.

Conversely, the second ideology regards water as a tradable resource demanding valuation.

Advocates of this viewpoint contend that, akin to electricity, a reasonable price structure is essential to ensure sustainability and efficient utilization.

Rooted in this perspective, the notion of water theft gains validity—characterized by procuring water without requisite payment or violating established norms.

However, the initial perspective exhibits unease with the terminology and concepts of water theft and smuggling.

While it recognizes the act of illicitly acquiring water from a neighbor’s reservoir as theft, it questions whether obtaining water from communal or public sources, like rivers, without authorization can indeed be labeled as “theft.”

This skepticism is particularly prominent when such actions stem from pressing necessities. Rather, imposing punitive measures to curb unapproved water usage from common or public sources is perceived as a potential encroachment on a fundamental human right.

Hence, legislation and regulations governing water utilization can be polarizing and incendiary, given the entrenched nature of these divergent viewpoints, which can even coexist within the same political entity.

Nuanced Stances Amidst the Water Access Debate

Within the realm of water management, intermediate viewpoints emerge, offering a nuanced perspective. Certain water experts, for instance, uphold the notion that water access is an intrinsic human entitlement that must not be denied to anyone.

However, they also assert that the provision of water, starting from its extraction, treatment for safe consumption, and eventual delivery to households, is not inherently a basic human right.

Consequently, they advocate that payment for the treatment and distribution of water is justifiable. Under this premise, they argue that the uncompensated utilization of water may not be labeled as theft, although it constitutes an illicit use of utility infrastructure.

Other reports from water management experts align with the belief that “free water is wasted water.” However, they avoid the terminology of water theft, opting instead for the milder phrase “overuse of water.”

It’s important to recognize that certain jurisdictions legally permit overuse, even though it may lead to unsustainable inefficiency and environmental deterioration.

For instance, in some Arab nations, artificially low water prices and extensive subsidies, with the cost of desalinated water representing only 10% of production expenses, characterize a highly inefficient yet lawful approach.

In China’s industrial landscape, water usage per unit of production is 10 times higher than the average in affluent nations.

The parched lands of California are another case in point, where inadequately priced water fuels the cultivation of water-intensive crops like avocados, exemplifying how legality can coexist with inefficiency.

Unveiling Water Theft: A Framework of Thought

Within the scope of this news series, our analysis predominantly aligns with the school of thought that acknowledges the possibility of water theft. While it is unequivocally recognized that access to water is a fundamental human right, this recognition doesn’t imply limitless access without regulation or cost.

The analogy of food’s accessibility illustrates this concept: though access to food for survival is a human right, it is subject to pricing. Those who lack the means to acquire essential sustenance are rightfully entitled to food assistance.

Likewise, the concept of water pricing emerges, emphasizing that only a specific quantum of water—a quantity necessary for a person’s well-being—should be bolstered by assistance to uphold this essential human right.

Access to water exceeding this vital threshold, be it for purposes such as swimming pools, lawns, agriculture, or industrial usage, should be subjected to appropriate pricing.

Such access should not be categorically defined as an intrinsic human right. Furthermore, even access to the minimum water requirement for healthy human survival warrants restrictions on usage.

Instances of flouting established regulations, exceeding allotted water allocations, or compromising water quality through unauthorized means cannot be justified under the guise of exercising a fundamental human right.

Certainly, appropriating water from a neighbor’s domicile is widely recognized as theft. Equally, the illicit appropriation of water from wetlands or rivers, or surreptitiously establishing unauthorized connections to water conduits, should be unequivocally classified as acts of theft.

Defining Water Theft and Smuggling in the Context of Regulations

Water theft, as per our framework, encompasses any act of appropriating water that contravenes established regulations.

Such violations span actions like evading specified local water fees through tampering with meters, extracting water from boreholes without requisite licenses, or illicitly establishing connections to water distribution systems. In parallel, water smuggling is characterized as the transport and dispersal of water in breach of existing regulations.

Consequently, it becomes apt to classify as criminal enterprises those entities that engage in the commercial procurement and distribution of water while flouting prevailing regulations.

An instance could be the extraction of water from a river without proper authorization from a water authority, whether dictated by law or obtained through a specific license.

While private water distribution, in and of itself, may not constitute a legal breach, it is important to note that informal water distributors emerge when taxes on water income are not remitted.

In cases where water acquisition for sale is conducted in violation of regulations, these entities should be identified as illegal water distributors.

It’s worth noting that the stipulations in existing water laws, such as the legality of drawing water from a public hydrant, the requirement to disclose water procurement and remit payment, or the permissibility of diverting water from rivers on public land, exhibit wide variation between countries and regions.

Hence, what constitutes water theft in one jurisdiction might be legally permissible in another, even in neighboring areas. For example, in certain locales, groundwater is regarded as a communal resource accessible to farmers, sometimes at minimal cost or even for free.

Despite the potential adverse impacts on the environment and water sustainability stemming from the absence of pricing, such practices can indeed be within legal boundaries.

Strengthening Water Regulations: A Call for Enforcement

The rigorous enforcement of water regulations stands as a pressing imperative, necessitating punitive measures to ensure comprehensive adherence.

Policing water practices must seamlessly integrate into the array of strategies available to both communities and policymakers. This integration is pivotal in achieving a balanced, equitable, and sustainable water utilization, spanning domains encompassing people, agriculture, industries, and natural ecosystems.

Yet, a dichotomy surfaces in the discourse on water management. Some water regulators and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) contend that adversarial methodologies, typified by policing, enforcement, and punitive measures for water transgressions, might yield counterproductive outcomes.

They posit that optimal water management arises from harmonious cooperation among a diverse assembly of stakeholders. They query whether the characterization of unauthorized water usage as “illegal” might hinder stakeholder buy-in, instead favoring a less incendiary term.

The absence of a shared vocabulary and conceptual framework amplifies the challenge of establishing effective and sustainable water management strategies.

While not aiming to definitively settle these disputes, this series will proffer recommendations on integrating enforcement strategies within water management, when suitable. The exploration will spotlight scenarios where such strategies are presently relevant and anticipate their burgeoning frequency.

Diving deeper, we will scrutinize various forms of water theft and smuggling, investigating their dimensions, frequency, latent threats, and even the advantages they occasionally extend to marginalized populations, in addition to their impact on privileged and unaccountable entities.

This inquiry extends to dissecting the governance of illegal water markets and the intricate fabric of water smuggling syndicates, encompassing their political influence and financial capital.

Simultaneously, our analysis will explore the involvement of governmental water authorities in perpetuating illicit water markets.

It will examine the recurrent instances of government complicity in unlawful water activities worldwide, alongside the impediments to rectifying this scenario and embracing improved policies.

Next: InDepth: Water Mafia of Mumbai #02:  Genuine Concern or Exaggeration?


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