Australia is currently suffering from one of the driest periods on record in the country. That, along with ongoing bush fires, has pushed the country's rural communities to the brink of Day Zero — the moment when water sources run dry. Australia's inner-most towns and cities are rationing water, trying their best to make their reservoirs last, but have been with a new challenge threatening to drain them of the precious resource: thieves.
Reports from local media outlets in the country including the Australian revealed that a farmer in the town of Evans Plains had 80,000 gallons of water stolen from his property earlier this week. Though details of the case are pretty sparse, reports indicate that the theft happened overnight. The farmer noticed that two large tanks of water on his property were drained in the morning, at which point he contacted the police. Law enforcement in the region are now searching for any information that residents have on water trucks or vehicles equipped with water tanks that may have been in the area over the course of the last week or so.
While there might be something morbidly entertaining about the water theft — particularly since it has a very Mad Max-style dystopia feel in the country where that series was filmed — it's far from a laughing matter. In fact, it's not even the first such heist to hit the region. A report from the Sydney Morning Herald last week documented a similar scheme that led to more than 6,500 gallons of drinking water being siphoned from the small town of Murwillumbah, which is currently under a water restriction as government officials try to stave off the threat of the town going completely dry.
These types of acts of desperation (or depravity, the motivation is unclear at this point) are likely to become more common as Australians are forced to buckle down and deal with an ongoing resource crunch. Much of the country has been running low on water since the spring, when extreme heat placed significant burden on water resources that were already running low. According to Climate Council, a nonprofit organization that provides information on climate change to the Australian public, droughts have become more common over the last decade or so. The lack of rainfall, which has led to as much as a 25 percent drop in available rain water, has also led to streams, rivers, lakes and dams across the country running dry. Western Australia in particular, which water thefts are taking place, has seen a 50 percent decline in streamflow since the 1990s, according to Climate Council. Bodies of water like the Murray River, the longest in Australia, have reached new lows in terms of available water.
These droughts have pushed many towns in Australia, particularly those located in the country's vast, rural interior, to the brink of Day Zero. WaterNSW, a government-owned water services company serving the New South Wales region, estimates that the Lachlan River could run dry by March 2020, leaving towns in the central western parts of Australia without any reliable source of water. A number of other major bodies of water are projected to dry out over the course of 2020, leaving tens of thousands left to rely on imported water from other regions, assuming it can be spared and transported efficiently. Even the city of Sydney, which more than five million Australians call home, is at risk of a major water crisis by 2021 if the Nepean River continues drying at the rate that it has.
There are multiple issues exacerbating the water shortage, leading to increased demand at a time that it simply cannot be afforded. Much of Australia is currently experiencing record levels of heat. This week, parts of the country have seen temperatures climb as high as 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Add to that the massive bushfires that have spread across the country, including one that has burned more than 7.4 million acres over the course of two months and left surrounding towns and cities blanketed in smoke and toxic air. These are issues that demand water to solve, and come at a time when there is already none to spare, leading to communities implementing strict water restrictions to ration what remains. A report from the New York Times earlier this year highlighted the toll it has taken on individuals, forcing people to go days without showers, leave clothes and dishes to pile up and resulting in gardens going barren as the heat wastes them away.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like things will get better any time soon for Australia. Most indicators suggest that these conditions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The Department of Primary Industries projected that there is a 99.9 percent chance that New South Wales will continue to feel the effects of the drought in the coming months. Meanwhile the Bureau of Meteorology's Climate Outlook, has indicated that the state has a low likelihood receiving median levels of rainfall for the next three months.
Water scarcity is becoming an increasing threat around the world as we face down the effects of climate change. Multiple major cities and countries have come dangerously close to Day Zero in recent years, including Cape Town, South Africa in 2018 and Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2015. Water — specifically fresh water — is a limited resource. When that comes into clear view, as it is in Australia, water becomes a valuable target of thieves and smugglers who see value in commoditizing it. Similar issues have plagued towns in India, where private tankers have illegally skimmed water with the intent to sell it to those in desperate need. A "water mafia" has cropped up in Pakistan, turning crisis into a business opportunity by hoarding water and gouging people with high prices. With as much as one quarter of the world facing the harsh possibility of their city or country reaching Day Zero, it's likely that malicious actors will do their best to capitalize on the problem in order to make a quick buck while millions suffer.