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Water and organised crime

posted on 2023-05-22, 18:51 authored by Eman, K, Robert WhiteRobert White
Water is a basic requirement of human life. It is always needed and, therefore, marketable. Today, water is one of the most valuable resources in the world, even more so than gold or oil. In the late 1990s, the re-conceptualization of water as a tradeable commodity occurred (Alston & Mason, 2008), accompanied by privatisation of its ownership and management, which caused numerous changes concerning the rights of the users and the ways of its use. Scarce supply and unequal access to water have also been affected by factors such as climate change and excessive agricultural irrigation (Johnson, South, & Walters, 2015; UNESCO, 2012). Restricted quantities of clean water make it a particularly valuable property for those who own and control it. It also opens the door to corruption and the involvement in organised criminal groups in its supply and distribution.

Environmental safety and wellbeing—including provision of clean drinking water—is closely linked to national and international security. The main pressure on governments in protecting the environment comes from the private business sector, which inherently strives for the maximization of profit even if this is at the expense of the environment (Bisschop, 2011; Elliott, 2009; Klenovšek & Meško, 2011). When environmental protection laws are passed, many companies will comply; but others will try to circumvent the norms that are in place to protect the environment. This can translate into situations where further pollution or depletion of natural resources occurs with the assistance of organised criminal groups and/or illegal services which enable companies and individuals to continue their previous profitable activities. An example of this is waste management and the contracting out of waste removal by legitimate companies to unscrupulous operators who dispose of the waste illegally (Dobovšek, 1997; Massari & Monzini, 2004; Situ & Emmons, 2000; Watson, 2005).

Longer periods of water shortages, together with the competing rights of irrigators versus environmentalists and urban versus rural populations raised several huge challenges for politics and policymakers (Alston & Mason, 2008, p. 214). The most important is the fact that every human has a right to water and sanitation. The fact that water was accepted as a tradeable commodity and that people need it for their survival, offered an opportunity for never-ending business. Thus, the increasing significance given to the commodification of water and the decreasing significance of the environmental uses of water opened the door to the water trade as big business. The prioritization of economic dimensions of water began in the 1990s and has accelerated since then.

Freshwater became a lucrative investment because its scarcity means a huge profit for water-related businesses. The rising freshwater industry is estimated to be worth around US$1 trillion a year (Johnson et al., 2015, p. 149). Gleick (1998, p. 571) notes that the human right to water, the limits of fresh water sources, and the need for sustainable development were pushed into the background as secondary considerations because of the logic of privatization and prevailing economic models. Water ownership and use have been reconstructed in law and policy in the interests of private companies. This situation creates inequalities and injustice in the distribution of freshwater. Existing laws are still subject to violation in the form of water-related corruption and violence, water theft, water market price fixing, and violations of the regulations on water quality. Here corruption also plays a significant role, as transparency in the water sector is often limited (Eman, Furdi, Hacin, & Dobovšek, 2016; Spapens, White, van Uhm, & Huisman, 2018). Moreover, the possibilities for making huge profits always attract organized crime.


Publication title

Water, Governance, and Crime Issues


K Eman, G Mesko, L Segato and M Migliorini






School of Social Sciences



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Justice and the law not elsewhere classified

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