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Water myths and untruths

Photo: Water Services Corporation

Photo: Water Services Corporation

Of late I have noted various official and reputable sources churning out gross misinformation and misconceptions about water use in Malta, and I feel compelled to set the record straight.

Myth 1: Malta solved its water problems in the 1980s and 1990s with the introduction of reverse osmosis (RO) technology.

Wrong. The RO plant only produce a third of the fresh water that we are using today. The remaining two-thirds come from the groundwater resources that will be completely depleted within a generation because of unrelenting over-extraction.

Myth 2: RO water production is eco-friendly and sustainable.

While announcing a grant scheme for sustainable tourism projects by enterprises, the Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, Mario de Marco, "suggested and encouraged, in particular, ideas like reverse osmosis" (July 17). It is amazing how even the Cabinet is completely misguided on this matter. RO plant consume huge amounts of electricity, painfully produced at our inefficient power stations that are stretched to the limit. In view of their high electricity demand, RO plant are also responsible for the release of huge amounts of greenhouse emissions, for which we will be held accountable by the EU Commission. I encourage Dr de Marco to talk to the officials at the Malta Environment and Planning Authority who are responsible for the country's emissions and climate change issues so that he may be guided accordingly. Truly sustainable water projects for hotels include water conservation, greywater recycling and wastewater treatment for re-use.

Myth 3: Groundwater delivered by bowser is a regulated, safe source of fresh water and a viable alternative to (expensive) mains water.

A huge misconception with huge legal implications. Firstly, only water sold by the Water Services Corporation is legal. No other individual, organisation or company has a licence to extract groundwater, let alone sell it. Moreover, having a registered borehole does not entitle you to pump out groundwater, not even if it's only intended for your own use. In this respect, there is absolutely no distinction between a registered borehole and an unregistered one. None can be used for the exploitation of groundwater. Moreover, most groundwater sources are contaminated and pose a serious risk to public health. Malta has one of the highest rates of Legionnaire's disease (attributed to supplies of poor quality bowser water) when calculated on a per-tourist-arrival basis. This is mainly attributed to the use of untreated, unregulated bowser water supplies.

Myth 4: Groundwater is seawater that has been filtered by the bedrock; it is therefore infinite.

Very wrong. Groundwater is that portion of rainfall that has infiltrated into the bedrock and come to rest in the aquifer. Over-extraction of groundwater started in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, and has today reached unprecedented rates (partly prompted by the introduction of the surcharge). In the past 40 years we have managed to reduce a 30-year reserve of pure fresh water into a hugely-depleted source of brackish water that is barely suitable for irrigation, let alone potable water. Whatever good water exists will not last a decade. The situation is made worse by the projected decrease in annual rainfall arising from climate change and the reduction in infiltration area because of increased urbanisation.

Myth 5: Water cuts are a thing of the past.

More than 60 per cent of our potable water supply comes from RO plant. Imagine a situation where the groundwater reserve has been completely exhausted, and the RO plant cannot operate (because of a power cut or because of an oil spill). Malta only has a three-day supply of water in its reservoirs - which is hardly enough time to import fresh water from Sicily. What happens then?

Myth 6: Water is cheap and will remain so in the foreseeable future.

The reasons why mains water in Malta is relatively inexpensive is because of huge direct and indirect subsidies, and because 40 per cent of our potable water still comes from (free) groundwater. Moreover, given the absence of wastewater treatment on a national scale, sewage treatment costs are negligible. This is all set to change by 2010 when the EU will demand the removal of all subsidies and full cost recovery for water services, at which stage a 200-300 per cent surcharge will be on the cards (and that's assuming that oil prices do not increase further).

Myth 7: Water demand is decreasing.

The recently-published MEPA State of the Environment Report Indicators 2007 states that billed water consumption continued to fall by 9 per cent between 2005 and 2006. While mains water consumption may indeed be falling, this in no way can be used as an indicator of a more sustainable use of water in Malta. In fact, the reason why mains water consumption is decreasing is nothing to be proud of. Rather, it is a national disgrace and a scandal. Over the last few years, and particularly after the introduction of the surcharge, hotels, industry and even individuals are drilling boreholes and pumping out millions of tonnes of free illegal groundwater as a cost-effective alternative to mains water - thus aggravating the already disastrous situation with our strategic groundwater reserves. Groundwater is a public resource. It is therefore criminal for individuals and private companies to exploit this national resource, and government should step in to put a stop to this anarchic behaviour.

Myth 8: The new wastewater treatment plant to be built from EU funds will provide treated water as a viable alternative to groundwater.

No, there are no concrete plans for the polishing and distribution of the treated effluent to date. The bulk of this water will be discharged into the sea.

Myth 9: It is prohibitively expensive to treat wastewater effluent for re-use, even for agriculture.

Singapore and certain states in the US have been treating wastewater for direct and indirect potable water re-use for years now, and Australia is following suit. By using treated effluent, Israel and Tunisia have converted deserts into oases. It seems it is possible and affordable for all these countries, but not for Malta. The mind boggles.

Myth 10: Nobody is building a well nowadays, so it seems that the centuries-old law has been dropped.

Wrong. Legal Notice 236 of 2008 stipulates that all buildings (residential, commercial, industrial) have to have a well with a capacity that is proportional to the roof area of the premises. The regulation came into force on January 1, 2007; according to law, all development applications received at Mepa after this date must have a well.

Myth 11: Mepa is the water regulator in Malta but water policy is the responsibility of the Water Services Corporation.

Incorrect, on both counts. Believe it or not, Malta does have a national water regulator, the Malta Resources Authority (MRA), which has the "responsibility for the regulation of all practices relating to water resources, drainage and sewage". The MRA is responsible for water policy, which ought to have groundwater protection as its main objective. However, four years into its formulation, the national water policy has still not seen the light of day. At this rate, by the time the water policy is published there will not be any groundwater left to protect.

I invite the Malta Resources Authority to confirm or refute these "clarifications".
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