Sleep-walking towards disaster
Malta almost has the worst per capita availability of water in the world, lying 172nd out of 180 nations, a position that will be made worse with climate change.
A study conducted among farmers in Malta, the first of its kind by the National Statistics Office, has established that agriculture used about 19 million cubic metres of water in the year between September 2008 and 2009, most of this extracted from the ground. In contrast, last year the Water Services Corporation - the only entity legally authorised to use the country's fresh-water supply for public consumption - extracted about 13 million cubic metres of ground-water for distribution as tap water. A further 16.6 million cubic metres of water were produced by reverse osmosis plants, of course at a huge financial cost.
Of the 19 million cubic metres extracted by agriculture, only 0.3 million were actually paid for, leaving well over 18 million extracted at no cost to the farmer.
Whichever way one looks at these figures - that were released, ironically, to mark World Water Day - they provide an appalling indictment of the way the country manages this most precious resource.
Here is one of the most water-starved countries in the world, which has, justifiably, though not very adroitly, recently raised its charges for water use, allowing a huge part of its dwindling and absolutely vital resource not only to be over-extracted but also at no charge at all. Such profligacy beggars belief. Worse, it is a situation that has prevailed for a very long time with no government having either the administrative skill, the willingness to invest sufficient resources to increase fresh-water capacity or the political will to tackle this crucial problem.
Several eminent hydrologists have repeatedly warned Malta that unless it cuts its dependence on aquifers, ground-water sources may dry up within the next 15 years. Some experts put it at less and, indeed, a former chairman of the WSC forecast that Malta would run out of water within "about five years". The country is sleep-walking to disaster. Water is an essential resource of all life and a vital requirement for good health, sanitation and a critical contributor to almost all industrial production.
What is to be done?
The Minister for Resources and Rural Affairs, George Pullicino, has said that ground-water extraction would be metered by the end of the year "so that the authorities would have a clear picture of the amount extracted and from which areas". That is a good start but it surely is not good enough.
While it has to be accepted that farmers need water to produce their crops, is it right that this should be cost-free and uncontrolled? Why should industrial producers of bottled water not pay a proper market price for the water they extract for free from the aquifer? Should not other industrial and commercial enterprises, which similarly benefit from this common resource, also pay the market price?
How much longer are we to wait for government action? The government must take the steps necessary to protect and replenish Malta's water table by investing in the infrastructure to safeguard this vital strategic social and economic resource before it is too late. It may cost many millions of euros to do so but the costs of doing nothing are too serious to contemplate.