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Grand theft water and the calculus of compliance


Water crises constitute a challenge for humanity. Uncertain supply and growing demand are driving higher water theft, particularly by agricultural users who account for approximately 70% of global use. However, research into water theft is underexplored in all disciplines. This paper provides a conceptual framework and modelling approach designed to improve understanding of both individual and institutional barriers to water theft. The framework and model explore how effective detection, prosecution, conviction and penalties can be assessed. Three case studies test the validity of our framework. 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). In addition, 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.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual framework for calculating compliance costs and institutional investment needs.
Fig. 2: Fixed penalties versus dynamic market pricing of water.
Fig. 3: Perennial crop legal/illegal behaviour decision context in response to low water supply.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information or by request from the authors.


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D.A. recognizes funding from the Australian Research Council via a DECRA grant (DE160100213) which assisted with some of his time. Advice from M. Shanahan for critical early insights into the theory, which informed early drafts of the paper, is also greatly appreciated.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to reviewing and discussing the literature and drafting initial versions of the article. A.L. and D.A. conceived the framework, and A.L., C.D.P.-B. and D.A. conceived and developed the model. C.D.P.-B., E.C. and V.F.-B. compiled the data for and drafted the case study materials. A.L. structured the paper and coordinated efforts between all authors. A.L., C.D.P.-B., E.C., D.A. and V.F.-B. all contributed to writing the final article text.

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Correspondence to A. Loch.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Case-Study Data 1–3, Supplementary Figs. 1–4, Tables 1–4 and Box 1.

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Loch, A., Pérez-Blanco, C.D., Carmody, E. et al. Grand theft water and the calculus of compliance. Nat Sustain 3, 1012–1018 (2020).

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