From Monterrey to Chile, Water Theft Proves Lucrative in a Dangerously Dry World

As many as 4 billion people around the globe experience water scarcity for at least one month a year, and worsening climate disasters including storms and drought only threaten to make matters worse

In California, the illicit cannabis industry manages to get as much water as it needs while residents for years have faced high fines — and public shaming — for violating strict use limits.
By James Attwood, Max de Haldevang and Kim Chipman
April 22, 2023 | 01:00 PM

Bloomberg — They learned the hard way not to drive out alone.

Officials inspecting water theft in Monterrey, Mexico, started going out in convoys of three or four cars accompanied by police because others before them had been pelted with stones or had their cars surrounded. Once, one of them was briefly taken hostage.

Erika Flores, Nuevo Leon's environmental regulation inspector.dfd

Those kinds of threats were not what Erika Flores expected when she became an environmental regulation inspector in the country’s business capital. But when her role turned to tracking down and enforcing water theft during a drought-induced crisis last summer, Flores’ job grew increasingly dangerous.

“It wasn’t on our radar,” she said. “Now, it’s become part of our daily activity.”


Mexico is not alone. Water theft on a monumental scale has decimated national park lagoons in Spain and threatened to bankrupt farmers in Chile. In California, the illicit cannabis industry manages to get as much water as it needs while residents for years have faced high fines — and public shaming — for violating strict use limits. Illegal water theft even ensnared a former mayor in Brazil.

As many as 4 billion people around the globe already experience water scarcity for at least one month a year, according to UNICEF, an arm of the United Nations, and worsening climate disasters including storms and drought only threaten to make matters worse. The impact is both economic and deadly: Water scarcity will slash as much as 6% of GDP in some countries by 2050, a recent UN report predicts, endangering food security and access to electricity.

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Cooperation between governments and organizations involved with water are key to safeguarding supplies, but so far, the political will is lacking, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.


Rather than just drilling for more reserves or waiting for new technologies, nations need to overhaul legal and political frameworks to roll out affordable services and step up enforcement, she said. If not, the downward spiral of shrinking supplies and illicit offtake will stoke further suffering and conflict as well as downstream disruptions to food production and other industries, she said.

“Monterrey is a canary in a coal mine,” said Felbab-Brown, who travels to cities from Nairobi, Kenya, to Karachi, Pakistan, studying illicit economies. “But there have been quite a few canaries that have died in the mines over the past several years without really dramatic changes to how we treat water.”

Environmental regulation inspectors put water closure seals due to non-compliance in General Escobedo, Nuevo Leon.dfd

Flores’ eight-person team in Monterrey found widespread theft with people digging unauthorized wells and diverting water from rivers. “We realized just how much clandestine theft there was,” she said. “We never imagined this.”

At the height of the crisis, which as since eased, people were stealing as much as 10% of the city’s water supply, estimated Juan Ignacio Barragán, director of the state water company Agua y Drenaje. They’d fill tankers and sell water on the black market for many times the price of what it cost from the utility, he said. Some of it irrigated crops; some filled swimming pools.

In California, now coming out of a years-long drought, data don’t begin to capture a glaring water theft dilemma: the illegal cannabis industry — widely estimated at $8 billion — that stubbornly persists despite voters approving recreational use in 2016. As far as blatant theft to support the underground industry — such as trucking in stolen water, taking from fire hydrants and digging illegal wells — the estimates are staggering.

“The amount of water stolen by the illegal cannabis industry is mind-blowing,” said John Nores, retired lieutenant and former team leader of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Marijuana Enforcement Team. “We are talking millions and millions of gallons taken annually by these unlawful operations.”

The Inspectors of the State Environmental Prosecutor Marcelino Rangel and Victor Manuel put closure seals on a property in the city of General Escobedo, Nuevo Leon, this due to non-compliance with the norms.dfd
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Richard Connor, an expert on water resources with UNESCO, the UN’s education, culture and social arm, says global water theft is directly related to the failure of governments to provide reliable service, forcing people to find it on their own.


“The people that are hijacking water tanks, the reason they’re doing that is it’s profitable for them to sell that water to people that don’t have the services. So the more people that don’t have the services, the greater the likelihood for theft,” Connor said.

The crisis is starting to lead to action in some countries, although efforts have been mostly small-scale.

Spain, for instance, is using its civil guard to crack down on illegal pumping at its Doñana wetland. While the worst drought in decades could have contributed to it drying up, the main cause was theft for domestic use, including watering gardens and filling swimming pools in a suburb nearby, WWF said. An eight-month probe involving 1,400 agents led to the arrest of 133 people last year.

“Water theft in Spain’s Mediterranean coast is deeply rooted in urban development, too,” said Felipe Fuentelsaz, agriculture and water coordinator for WWF Spain.

The Rialb reservoir during a drought in La Baronia de Rialb, Spain.dfd

In Brazil, an agricultural powerhouse, former mayor Clebel de Souza Cordeiro of Salgueiro was convicted of stealing water from the São Francisco River, the main water source for millions of people in the drought-hit northeast, to irrigate his own orchards. But his 6-month prison sentence was later reduced to community service and a fine.

The government of left-leaning Chilean President Gabriel Boric Font is looking to step up control of water resources. The country’s water regulator reported inspections of illicit water use rose 9.5% last year from 2021 and it issued 555 fines worth about $6.4 million. The number of federal water inspectors is set to double between early 2022 and the end of this year.

“The objective is not to continue fining people but to end the illegal extraction of water,” Chile’s former Public Works Minister Juan Carlos García said.

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Chilean farmer Felipe Rojas is living the reality.

The sexagenarian has about 150 acres near the mouth of the Mataquito River in one of central Chile’s agricultural heartlands where he’s grown beans and raised livestock for decades. In the drier summer months, the river flow gets so weak from thieves that seawater moves upstream, choking his access to fresh water. Last year he lost his entire bean harvest.

“Those upstream take all the water from us,” he says. “With the profit they make in just a few weeks, they have enough to pay a lifetime of fines.”


--With assistance from Valentina Fuentes, Mariana Durao and Laura Millan