Enormous challenge to avert water crisis

Enormous challenge to avert water crisis

In the past three months, articles relating to water have been prominent in the press.

Two themes have been noticeable: over extraction and eventual destruction of the ground water resource, and utility prices; but little connection has been made between them.

With regard to the ground water, various government agencies' websites, particularly MRA and Mepa, for the past decade have been warning of the demise of the ground water, with an imminent date of 2015, at worst five years away, though such a prediction will depend on various uncertainties relating both to nature, future extraction/consumption and pricing and could range from five to 20 years away.

At present, Malta's water needs are met by Reverse Osmosis (RO) plants, 16 million cubic metres per year; Water Services Corporation ground water extraction, 14 million cubic metres per year; and private borehole extraction, around 20 million cubic metres per year. Additional minor sources come from springs, rain water traps and cisterns, and private RO plants.

If the latter sources are discounted, around 30 million cubic metres per year are metered and paid for by consumers while about 20 million cubic metres per year are extracted free of charge through private boreholes. Thus, for every three litres that consumers pay for, other consumers are receiving two litres at no charge, with potential implications for the water rates that paying consumers face.

The extinction of the ground water resource by over extraction, salinisation and nitrate pollution, whenever it happens, has serious consequences. Agriculture will potentially face collapse as saline water encroaches on more and more private wells.

A dire situation would arise if current levels of consumption are needed to be maintained as RO plants would be required to ramp up their production by the addition of 34 million cubic metres per annum or around three times current production.

Aside from questions of whether RO capacity and/or electricity generation capacity will be available to meet this requirement, it would mean that water utility rates could rise by the order of 300 per cent on present assumptions, while should oil prices rise beyond $200/barrel, even dramatically higher water prices could ensue with consequences for the economy and societal well being as a whole.

Concomitantly, the import of fuel oil would need to rise significantly and Malta's emissions of carbon dioxide gas would also rise. In addition, there would be no strategic reserve of water in case of a crisis of whatever origin, that hindered or shut down the operation of the RO plants.

The public debate about utility prices over the last 18 months would seem like a storm in a teacup by comparison.

The debate indicates that, although the seriousness of the situation is well expressed on government websites, that the general public and many organisations are poorly or not well informed.

The general paradigm is that water is a public right, to be provided cheaply at public expense, and is inexhaustible, therefore there is strong resistance to rising prices.

The choice, however, is between future punitive price rises or a world in which major cuts in consumption take place which help rein in, or reduce rate rises.

To restore the main ground water, aquifers would require production of the order of 18 million cubic metres per year of ground water at less than the annual rain water recharge of 23 million cubic metres per year.

Assuming that the rest is provided by RO plants, given no changes in other factors, to maintain current water rates, and assuming that private borehole users pay water rates as well, would require an across the board cut of the order of 30 per cent in water consumption.

While the bulk of this would come from efficiencies in water use and cutting of waste there is also a significant role for part substitution by rain water harvesting, storm runoff capture, waste and sewage water recycling. Even if such a 30 per cent consumption cut is achieved, a scenario of rising oil prices would still nudge water rates upwards.

This is an enormous challenge and requires a culture that is ruthlessly conservationist and highly efficient with respect to water. To meet this challenge requires education of the public and organisations, subsequent to which the government, in concert, with public and private enterprises, NGOs, the public and society can take the decisive steps that are necessary in a strategy to meet this very difficult goal.

Malta's water crisis is imminent within a few years and there is little time to act to avert it.

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