Water resource in critical state
Despite the widely lacking public awareness, a fresh sense of urgency over Malta’s dwindling natural water resource has shown signs of welling up at the Malta Resources Authority.
At a discussion on water organised by Żminijietna, Malta Resources Authority chief executive Anthony Rizzo cited a report on safeguarding Malta’s ground water published last month by the auditor general.
The performance audit, released by the National Audit Office, holds to the flame an administration that continues to drag its heels despite the prevailing risk status of Maltese groundwater.
Overall the NAO report concludes that the poor status of groundwater in both quantity and quality will continue to worsen unless decisive action is taken.
“Water efficiency has to be the number one measure. For example, are we growing water-saving crops? What about the type of plants we are planting on roundabouts?” queried Mr Rizzo. He stressed the importance of giving independence to regulatory authorities.
Cracked and crumbling reservoirs go unused as the price of energy rises and our dependence on reverse osmosis for water supply grows. The Malta Environment and Planning Authority issues compliance certificates for electricity – but not for water, as planned underground cisterns are quietly converted to car parks below high-rises instead of providing space for water storage.
“How did we arrive at this point?”, asked environmental and planning expert Alfred Baldacchino, adding that while water was being wasted, fragmentation of responsibilities was the real problem. Water should not be under any one ministry, he remarked.
Problems of over-extraction and nitrates were already present in the 1970s but no one talked about it or did much except seek to divert attention away from these ills with a technical solution, reverse osmosis. After water cuts led to roof tanks in the early 1980s the first reverse osmosis plant was built, giving the impression that the water problem was solved. Oil was cheaper then.
Comparing Malta’s high water stress index to that of other countries, Mr Rizzo noted that even if we harvested all rainwater we would still have to be careful.
Parts of England are now facing another hosepipe ban and water companies are planning an information offensive to encourage wise use of water. Heavy snow has not been enough to rehydrate stricken areas because snow has only one-tenth of the water volume of rainfall.
Incidental pollution in the Wied il-Għasel valley water course from leaking oil drums set alarm bells ringing. Yet the theft of water from Malta’s aquifers goes on day after day, resulting in seawater intrusion harming this precious resource.
The high incidence of antibiotic use in Malta shows up in our potential water resource. During the course of a project being worked on by the MRA in collaboration with the Water Services Corporation, antibiotics, thinners and other chemicals were found in discarded water which, after treatment, might have been useful to recharge the aquifer.
Active medical ingredients are soon to be flagged as priority substances in the field of water policy, with proposed amendments to directives currently undergoing public consultation. (See website below)
“On analysis it’s clear that chemical treatment is needed before this water can be reused,” insisted the MRA chief executive.
Mr Rizzo is equally convinced that the recharge project can go ahead if these elements are controlled, and he enquired about the role of the entity responsible for observing waste obligations (Wastserv Ltd) in this context.
As farmer Peter Axisa of the Taqali producers group acknowledged, statistics show that Malta is gradually moving towards a situation whereby it will be completely dependent on reverse osmosis.
Mr Axisa asked why all farmers should suffer if one is breaking the law. He acknowledged that the dumping of nitrates-rich manure into boreholes was taking place at some animal farms. A legal notice in 2011 postponed implementation of the nitrates action plan.
Ground water production has been constantly declining over the past decade (2000 – 2010) and its quality is mostly unacceptable unless blended with reverse osmosis water.
The situation is so bad that some farmers have installed their own reverse osmosis plants to purify the ground water they are extracting.
Voicing concern over where these farmers were throwing the reject water Mr Rizzo hoped it was not down another borehole, thus aggravating the problem… or into the sewage network, which isillegal.
Malta must achieve good ground water quality by 2015 or face penalties, yet the current price of production is “fictitious”, partly because we are the only EU country not paying drainage tariffs.
A law is needed to clarify who water belongs to and settle the question over whether it is public or private. Until then, anarchy reigns, with entrepreneurs freely making a commercial profit of a national resource that they are pumping up without paying for.
A considerable number of hotels are also helping themselves to water directly from the aquifer.
Hydrologist Marco Cremona pointed out that in the lead up to EU accession thecountry decided to go for irrigated agriculture on the mistaken assumption that water was unlimited and will always be available and free.
Recent figures from the national statistics office show that water demand foragriculture alone is 28 million cubic metres a year. This surpasses the sustainable yield of all the aquifers by five million cubic metres.
Even if the WSC stopped pumping up ground water, and non-agricultural extraction from boreholes by bottling plants, bowser water suppliers, industry, concrete batching plants, laundries and animal husbandry came to a halt, the aquifers would still be over-extracted.
Hard decisions on making careful use of our dwindling natural water resource a national priority are now unavoidable if we are to avoid disaster.
Yet such decisions remain distasteful to politicians who prefer to procrastinate. Getting real with the water situation might be a good start.
“We are taking from the store of water that we inherited and that we should be saving to give to our children,” added Mr Cremona.
An inter-ministerial committee chaired by Mr Rizzo now holds quarterly meetings to monitor progress on Malta’s adoption of the water catchment management plan. Of 40 measures presented to the EU Commission, nine have already been carried out and 25 are ongoing. Mr Baldacchino asked whether the committee could be opened up to stakeholders to enrich the discussion.
Everyone needs to develop a sense of urgency over our water resource. Unfortunately, the installation of metres on boreholes was postponed from 2010 to 2013, allegedly due to a ‘technical’ hitch. With an election approaching there may also be other reasons.
Mr Cremona proposed that the environment protection department at Mepa should join forces with the MRA and the Environmental Health Unit to form a single water authority which would be answerable to Parliament rather than to one minister or another.
The effect, he said, of raising electricity rates was quite different from the water scenario. Putting up the electricity tariff in 2010 had led to clear energy conservation efforts on the part of the public.
Yet care had to be taken that when raising the price of water to reflect external costs this would not lead to a spike in more illegal drilling of boreholes.