SYDNEY // Water thieves in Australia are to be targeted by tougher penalties as the authorities promise to protect declining supplies amid a long-standing drought and the threat of climate change.
Officials have said vast that amounts of water have been pilfered by rural land owners who have interfered with meters that regulate usage or have diverted flows through prohibited irrigation channels or levees. "It is important to recognise the sort of volume we are talking about here. We are talking in terms of millions of litres, so it takes a fair bit of effort to steal water. It is generally a recognisable offence in that if you've got five farms that are dry and one that's got some water on it, you wonder where it's coming from," said Andrew Gregson, the chief executive of the New South Wales Irrigators Council.
"What happens if somebody steals that water, takes it or diverts it illegally is that they are actually taking it out of the shared resource pool and are taking it off other irrigators. You're committing an offence against your neighbours and they are not going to take too kindly to that," Mr Gregson added. The theft of water has aroused deep resentment, especially among communities that rely on the ailing Murray-Darling river system, which snakes its way across the borders of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. More than seven years of low rainfall and above average temperatures have heaped immense pressure on this once mighty river basin upon which Australia relies for the bulk of its agricultural production. There are concerns in South Australia, the continent's driest state, that many rivers, creeks and lakes are slowly dying of thirst from creeping salinity and acidification caused by hotter weather and drought, affecting not only the livelihoods of farmers but also the delicate ecosystems that are home to vulnerable native flora and fauna.
The deteriorating health of the environment has prompted the South Australian government to impose up to 30-fold increases in fines for water theft, where sanctions for corporations have rocketed to A$2.2 million (Dh7.4m) from $70,000, while individuals face hefty punishments of $700,000. "If anyone illegally takes water out of the Murray, the penalty will fit the crime," the South Australian state premier, Mike Rann, said recently in a statement. "Water theft is a crime that takes water from all who depend on the Murray, but it is ultimately the environment - that pays the highest price."
Federal authorities in Canberra have also pledged a more hardline approach to Australia's water bandits through more stringent rules. "We are going through a very tough time at the moment and that is probably bringing out the worst in some people and they have resorted to tampering with meters or bypassing meters," said Tim Whetstone, a horticulturalist in South Australia, whose properties lie on the River Murray.
"That is something that is frowned upon within this region because we are all in this together. We only have one river to draw from and when people are flaunting the system or stealing water, they are dealt with by the authorities, albeit I think the penalties could be much harsher." Mr Whetstone said that although water theft was a pressing issue, he believes it is "only a very small minority that are doing it".
"The people that have been prosecuted for stealing water not only have to deal with their wrongdoing, but they also have to deal with the community that they live in. They are paying the price because they have to keep their head down very low when they walk through the streets of the communities, which are only small, but everyone seems to know exactly who has been doing the wrong thing," Mr Whetstone added.
Landholders typically buy a licence that allows them to pump an allocated amount of water from rivers. They often voice complaints that the system is not adequately policed and that more accurate monitoring mechanisms are needed, perhaps through meters that can be tracked remotely by satellite. In the absence of a uniform scheme to gauge consumption, the hijacking of valuable resources continues. "In some of our river systems - one in particular, the Macquarie marshes [600km north-west of Sydney] - they [state officials] have recently found out that there have been over 1,000 kilometres of unregistered levees that divert water away from river channels," said Martin Thoms, a professor of riverine ecosystems at the University of New England.
Mr Thoms said a natural cycle had pushed Australia into a drier period, when parched conditions might also be exacerbated by global warming and with less abundant flows the country's rivers needed to be more expertly managed. "In the past we haven't valued water as highly as we could. It was seen to be an unlimited resource. Now with the drought and with the possible impact of climate change, we are starting to realise how valuable water is. Remember Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth and the tensions around water are only going to increase," Mr Thoms warned.