As communities across drought-paralysed Australia patiently wait for rain, reports of water theft, ranging from relatively trivial incidents to a 25,000-litre heist, are troubling. Can we be far from outright anarchy when dishonest (and sometimes honest but desperate), people help themselves to other people’s water?
There are precedents for this – just think back to Cape Town‘s ‘Day Zero’ crisis in 2018 when a city of 3.74 million was set to run out of reticulated water. The rich white South Africans relaxed behind their high fences and simply bought in more water as and when needed.
Meanwhile, the poor black (and white) people were forced to queue at a public standpipe for their daily rations. While Cape Town’s immediate crisis is past, water is still a scarce and expensive commodity. There have been reports of water theft from there too – allegedly by residents fiddling their water meters to give false readings.
The Cape Argus News reported that the percentage of water lost or not billed for was at 34.27%, above the normal 20% band.
Last year the City of Cape Town warned of water shortages and introduced incremental water levels to discourage high usage. Punitive tariffs for high water users (more than 35,000 litres a month), costs R768.64, or $77 per 1000 litres.
That does seem steep when compared to Australian cities that charge $3.12 (Brisbane) $2.11 (Sydney), and $3.35 (Melbourne) per kilolitre (1000 litres). Some cities quote a range of prices – Perth ($1.82 – $4.85), Canberra ($2.46- $4.94) and Adelaide ($2.39 – $3.69). As you’d expect, water-rich Tasmania is the cheapest (Hobart $1.06, with Darwin not much dearer at $1.96.
So yes, we can see how an excess water tariff charge of $77 per kilolitre would galvanise people into trying to find a way around the system.
In Australia, water theft is more brazen; the rogues just back a water tanker up to an absent neighbour’s dam, stick a hose in and turn on a pump. A year ago, Southern Downs Regional Council authorities acted to secure water standpipes after neighbours reported numerous trucks illegally filling up at Connolly Dam. In December this year, police were called to investigate the theft of 25,000 litres of water from a Council depot in Murwillumbah (northern NSW). The thieves did just that – backed up a tanker, filled it up and drove away. This was at a time of bushfires (the Rural Fire Service said the stolen water was equivalent to six or seven fire tankers). Not only that, Murwillumbah, like other rural regions in NSW, was under severe water restrictions at the time. In this context, water thieves are no better than the two people who looted an abandoned electrical goods store in Bateman’s Bay. Leon Elton and Kylie Pobjie were arrested, charged and denied bail. It was alleged the pair traded the stolen electrical consumer goods for drugs.
Belt fruit growing town of Stanthorpe, which officially ran out of water last week. The town has just one water supply – Storm King Dam. Water is now being carted from Warwick, which is itself in danger of running out of town water by Christmas 2020. The State government has commissioned a $1 million feasibility study to extend the SEQ water pipeline grid from Toowoomba to Warwick. But what if it does not rain between now and the 18 months it could take for this to happen?
Other towns in Queensland (Miriam Vale near Gladstone comes to mind), have faced similar issues, although Queensland is often rescued by the northern wet season. It is not uncommon for drenching rain in southern parts of the state to follow a cyclone in the tropical north. Even then, Tablelands residents tell us the wet is late (again).
Drought-ravaged New South Wales is another matter, with the State government last year canvassing plans to evacuate up to 90 towns that are in danger of running out of water.
They include sizeable cities (Bathurst, Dubbo, Tamworth), and smaller towns like Orange, Armidale and Tenterfield.
In our new home town of Warwick, the Southern Downs Community Relief Group is hosting a weekly free water pick up from the Warwick Showgrounds The water is donated, rationed and available only to those who live in outlying towns which do not have reticulated water. Similar charitable groups are also operating on the Granite Belt.
Tambourine Mountain in the Gold Coast hinterland has no reticulated water service, forcing residents whose tanks have run dry to buy in delivered water,
A Mount Tambourine acreage dweller told FOMM the waiting time for truck-delivered water has blown out to eight weeks, because there are only two aquifer suppliers.
“It is a controversial issue on the mountain that a couple of other landowners are contracted to supply big commercial bottled water/soft drink companies. This means that thousands of litres are being trucked away from those aquifers every day, not available for local supply.
“Some residents have their own bores to supplement their needs but the water is of varying quality because those bores usually do not go as deep as those of the commercial suppliers.”
The Beverage Council of Australia, the peak body which usually responds to such reports, received some sort of vindication in December.
Its water division, the Australasian Bottled Water Institute [ABWI) welcomed the final report on the impacts of the industry on groundwater in the Northern Rivers by the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer.
“After a thorough and independent review into the bottled water industry in the Northern Rivers, the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer found that less than one per cent of groundwater in the Tweed is extracted for water bottling purposes,’’ Chief Executive Officer Australian Beverages Council Geoff Parker said.
The bottled water industry, which now generates over $700 million annually, has expanded in the past five years due to what Mr Parker says is “consumers’ preference for convenience, taste and rising health consciousness.”
A Queensland Urban Utilities survey found 35% of people preferred bottled water over tap water, while 29% thought it was better for them than tap water. But blind testing in South Australia revealed many people cannot tell the difference without packaging.
A report by consumer advocate Choice quoted Stuart Khan, an Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert in drinking water quality.
“Australia is a world leader in the way we manage drinking water quality and we have some of the best tap water in the world,” Khan says. “Tap water and bottled water are regulated differently in Australia, so they don’t need to meet the same standards. Tap water needs to meet more stringent quality criteria and actually gets monitored more carefully than bottled water.”
Even so, no disrespect to the local Council’s efforts to keep supplying potable water, but I’m not used to the treated water here. Occasionally I’m one of those who buys bottled water (on average Australians consume five litres per week).
But here’s the thing. At its cheapest in a retail grocery store, 10 litres of water costs about $4, or 40 cents per litre. That compares with about 0.2 cents a litre for reticulated town water (in Warwick). (It’s merely supply and demand economics, Grasshopper. Ed. BTW I can say what I like today, ‘cos it’s my birthday.)