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Water theft crackdown in Jordan futile without stiffened penalties

Aug 14,2022 - Last updated at Aug 15,2022

Water theft presents a critical global problem. Between 30 and 50 per cent of the planet’s water supply is stolen every year, according to a 2020 report published by an international team of researchers in the journal Nature Sustainability.

In Jordan, water security is one of the most important national and strategic issues facing the country.  Per capita share of water reaches only 10 per cent of the water poverty line, with the Kingdom receiving only 90 cubic metres annually. Ensuring a sustained supply of potable water, in addition to supplying various agricultural, industrial, mining and other economic sectors, is not solely a basic human right, but is also vital in fuelling economic growth.

The water sector in Jordan faces several challenges. Predominantly among them is a high percentage of “non-revenue” water — water lost through leaky pipes, theft and under-billing — of approximately 50 per cent. Of the non-revenue portion, around 70 per cent constitutes illegally siphoned water that is then resold at higher prices to those most desperately in need of water. Other uses of the stolen water include filling agricultural irrigation ponds and water tankers, watering livestock, or filling private swimming pools. Each act of illegal siphoning not only violates the law, but also disrupts water supply to law-abiding users, according to the Ministry of Water.

The overwhelming majority of water theft involves the price gouging of stolen fresh water, with thieves selling the commodity at inflated prices to people suffering from water disruptions often perpetrated by the said water thieves. Illegal tampering with fresh water pipelines causes massive reductions in supply, the repair of which is intrusive and costly in time, effort and finances.

Water theft is not an act of desperation, but rather one of greed, aimed largely at profiting from the exploitation of the vulnerable. Looting Jordan’s precious water resources should be punishable by escalated penalties and fines.

Those who abuse water carriers and mains, wastewater, pumping, purification or desalination stations; or who cause the pollution of water resources, pipes or stations used for drinking water; and those that dig or are involved in the digging of wells without obtaining a licence face a jail term of up to five years and fines up to JD7,000, according to the current laws.

In addition, violators of water and wastewater projects will be jailed for up to three years and fined up to JD5,000, according to the amended Water Authority of Jordan Law. All penalties stipulated under the new law are to be doubled in the case of repeat offences.

According to water experts, many water thieves are repeat offenders. Even those who were punished via jail time or hefty fines resumed stealing water for profit shortly upon release. Such swift recidivism requires a reconsideration of the magnitude of the fines and penalties imposed on such crimes.

Tens of millions of cubic metres are being stolen in Jordan each year. This issue must be addressed with heightened rigour, as the water situation is a pressing issue of national security. Firm law enforcement and severe penalties are required to end to this phenomenon, as almost no single week passes without the Water Ministry, with the help of other concerned authorities, announcing the detection of water thefts in multiple areas across Jordan.

It is deplorable that some remain indifferent to the current crisis, continuing to help themselves to water from mains and pipelines to freely fill their pockets with impunity, all the while depriving others severely in need of water. The perpetrators do not consider the time it takes to repair the damage and the many that are left without a drop of water until the damage is fixed.

Unauthorised water hook-ups threaten the reliability of the water network in water-scarce Jordan, where the ramifications of climate change are increasingly evident. Less rainfall, shrinking water supplies, rising temperatures and nearly empty dams which hold only 20 per cent of their capacity are all dangerous symptoms of climate change that are further compounded by water theft.

An intensified crackdown is sorely needed in addition to full support for the Water Ministry and other relevant authorities for their efforts to combat water theft. Such efforts are of foremost importance for ensuring a sustainable and equitable water supply for all. Ending water theft and addressing the various challenges the facing the sector is imperative to drive development across various sectors. 

In the case of Jordan, water is not merely a commodity, but a key propeller of growth and development. Ensuring a sustained water supply is necessary to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable Development Goal 6, which highlights the necessity of “clean water and sanitation for all”, stipulates universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030, therefore reducing the quantity of people suffering from water scarcity.

Water theft is a reoccurring problem in Jordan. In 2013, the Ministry of Water launched a dedicated campaign to crack down on water violations. Under the continuing campaign against water violations, authorities have terminated around 70,927 illegal fixtures on water mains, and have also sealed 1,284 illegal wells in cooperation with security forces as of May of this year. Currently, there are 593 cases of water theft in court.

Credit should be given to all in involved in taking measures against water theft for their great efforts, in spite of the challenges faced by authorities as well as the public, who according to water officials, are active players in reporting water theft. Citizens are required to protect their precious water resources by remaining alert and reporting violations without hesitation. Since the beginning of this year to date, around 372 cases of tampering have been reported at Al Disi pipeline, causing major disruptions across the country.

Tampering with pipelines with the intention to siphon and sell water is a prosperous enterprise. According to water experts, some water thieves deliberately target pipelines in strategic areas in order to sell the stolen water back to the afflicted residential areas at artificially elevated prices.

It is a non-stop battle to crack down on water theft and to dismantle illegal fixtures on water pipes, to say nothing of the time, effort and cost of maintenance required to complete the task. Raising awareness of the consequences of water theft and further engaging the public in combating this issue is of paramount importance. Despite determined efforts by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation and other concerned authorities to combat water theft in the country, the problem persists.

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