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Assessing effective deterrence of theft in transboundary water systems


Analysis of water theft remains challenging given poor data and limited cases, restricting assessments to higher levels where attempted. However, high-level research within key transboundary contexts can offer evidence for improved theft deterrence and critical legislative change requirements, along with institutional insights for other jurisdictions. For example, Federal water regulators of Australia’s Murray–Darling Basin (MDB), which is an important transboundary water system, have called for consistency in compliance and certainty across State jurisdictions to help protect water market confidence and resource reallocation outcomes that are critical in drought periods. Here we explore the complex legal processes for penalty setting in water theft cases that may drive ineffective compliance when the value of legal harm is procedurally downgraded under the legitimate consideration of mitigating factors. We aim to identify applied certainty and severity deterrence principles for reducing environmental and economic harm, as well as how to incorporate alternate water values in penalty setting to inform a future framework to analyse MDB legislative consistency and institutional transparency with lessons for other countries.

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Fig. 1: NRAR mitigating issues and penalty escalation framework.
Fig. 2: Actual and predicted future runoff in the sMDB 2000–2100.
Fig. 3: MDB regulated river system final annual water allocations, 2004–05 to 2021–22.
Fig. 4: Weighted average water allocation market prices by MDB major state trade zones, 2008–09 to 2021–22.
Fig. 5: MDB map showing irrigation areas, major rivers, wetlands and regional centres.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in Supplementary Data 1 and 2 or by request from the authors.


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We thank C. Auricht for some early assistance on data analysis with respect to the climate scenarios and modelling related to checking expected progress in regard to the Basin pathways computed by D.A.

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Authors and Affiliations



All authors contributed to reviewing and discussing the literature and drafting initial versions. M.C. and M.G. compiled the legal data and A.L. and D.A. compiled the water market/ climate availability analysis. A.L. and M.C. conceived the framework and M.G. and D.A. added contributions to the analysis. A.L. structured the paper and coordinated efforts between all authors. A.L., M.C., M.G. and D.A. contributed to writing the final article.

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Correspondence to Adam Loch.

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Supplementary information

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

Allocation and price dataset.

Supplementary Data 2

Original legal dataset.

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Loch, A., Croft, M., Adamson, D. et al. Assessing effective deterrence of theft in transboundary water systems. Nat Water 2, 380–389 (2024).

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