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Closing the water cycle

Water demand is high for tourism and agriculture in areas where the water table has been overexploited, as at Wied il-Musa.

Water demand is high for tourism and agriculture in areas where the water table has been overexploited, as at Wied il-Musa.

Water, or rather the lack of it, is expected to become more of a problem for countries in southern Europe in the years ahead.

Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain have been relying increasingly on desalinated water at great cost for their public water supply. Resources are squeezed nearly dry in these countries to meet water demand for tourism and irrigated agriculture in areas where the water table has been overexploited.

Most of the southern Member States already have their own legislative frameworks for reuse of water recovered from sewage, each with a different approach.

Yet lack of harmonisation on quality standards for reused water could pose trade barriers for agricultural goods from areas irrigated with water reclaimed from waste water. A request has been made by these countries to the European Commission for an instrument that will set out standards for reused water.

“It will probably come in the form of a directive,” says Manuel Sapiano, chief technical officer at the government’s Water Policy Unit.

Speaking last month at a seminar on water organised by the Cleaner Technology Centre and the European Youth Parliament for Water, Sapiano said that the use of “new water” could reduce Malta’s dependency on ground water by 2021. He said this project was aimed at producing seven million cubic metres yearly “to replace groundwater extraction”.

In its assessment of the careful use of treated urban waste water as a “tolerable risk”, the Commission assures us it can be as safe as flying. If harmonised standards are set in place in an affordable way we should not find obstacles to reusing the urban waste water we produce in various ways.

The WSC project to source ‘new’ water from waste water is an attempt to protect and preserve the national water table

Recharging the water table directly by injecting water straight into the aquifer or indirect recharge by allowing reused water to seep down from surface areas are both feasible.

Despite the concerns of hydrologists, who have long noted that Malta’s groundwater is in dire straits, government officials are claiming that the decline of Malta’s aquifers has levelled off and “extraction levels are contained”. Ironically, these official statements leave our country with a much depleted rationale, making it even harder to justify EU funding for development of an alternative water resource, such as “new water”.

Engineer David Sacco, the Water Services Corporation manager overseeing production, spoke of the supply/demand gap. The WSC project to source “new” water from waste water is an attempt to protect and preserve the national water table, he said.

WSC engineer Anthony Tanti reported that an application for EU funding has been made to design and implement a distribution network for reclaimed water, making it more accessible to farmers. At the moment the focus appears to be on supplying water for agriculture.

This is where the debate warms up.

The approach favoured by the Water Policy Unit is to launch “new water” as tariff-free for farmers in the hope of diverting them away from the use of registered and unregistered boreholes. However, it seems the unit will not put any obligation on farmers to actually close their boreholes.

Questions swirled around government’s intent to supply free water unconditionally. While this could result in an increase in agricultural produce, the chances of achieving a significant reduction in groundwater extraction seem quite slim at this point.

There is talk of eventually moving to a three-tiered tariff, starting at 20 cents per cubic metre for a volume that would serve a farmer’s irrigation needs for a year. If the supply of new water is not conditional to reducing borehole extraction then the intent to protect our ground water will have been diverted.

Taking all uses into consideration, the European Commission’s aim is to encourage water reuse while ensuring a high level of public health and environmental protection in the EU.

In an attempt to cut down on a potentially vast amount of expensive laboratory testing on samples of reused water before it is used in irrigation or to recharge aquifers, a shortcut has been proposed. It appears that the directive will oblige Member States to use biological assessment to check the quality of reused water.

A directive proposal is likely to introduce an exhaustive list of substances to be tested for in this new source of water obtained from precious water we are dumping down the drains.

Practitioners in the field argued it would be more cost effective to validate the pollution-removal capabilities of the particular treatment processes to be adopted and monitor their operational performance indicators. Malta could plea a less frequent laboratory testing regime to cut down on the massive cost of sending laboratory samples abroad.

In the meantime we look forward to the opening of a national water conservation awareness centre in Rabat in the coming months.

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