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Groundwater extraction

The 2018 European Waters published by the European Environment Agency states that Malta is among the three southern member states – together with Cyprus and Spain - where groundwater levels are drying up fast. The verdict on Malta is stark: it continues to have significant problems with groundwater levels.

The main pressure on Malta’s subterranean reservoirs is water extraction, the pumping out of water for public supply, agriculture and industry. Malta has the highest groundwater reserves, amounting to 80 per cent, categorised as being in a “poor” state. This is a very serious assessment since the island depends heavily on groundwater resources to meet its needs, with about 60 per cent extracted from subterranean reserves.

Malta’s Energy and Water Agency said extraction from the two main groundwater bodies were slowly stabilising and over-extraction was “progressively reducing”. When asked about serious concerns that the water table was being depleted, the agency said it aimed to reduce the amount of groundwater taken from boreholes.

Seeking to put the best face on matters, it also highlighted that Malta’s remaining 14 perched groundwater bodies, which were extensively used by the agricultural sector, were classified as having a “good quantitative status”.

The bottom line is that this is not the first report to focus on Malta’s extreme vulnerability to “water stress” and although the water agency has reported some improvements at the margins – it declares it is “slowly stabilising” – the situation is still extremely serious.

Two years ago, the World Resource Institute said the island’s reserves were being depleted and were severely affected by both nitrate pollution and increasing salinity.

For decades, Malta has been increasingly dependent on energy-intensive desalination. However, as the EEA’s report highlights, groundwater still contributes most of the water used in the country, especially by water-thirsty agriculture during the dry seasons. Water recycling and rainwater harvesting have lagged behind and inadequately-regulated private groundwater extraction has exacerbated the situation.

People are largely ignorant of the water problem and its dimensions. Reverse osmosis needs to be considered a fallback rather than the leading edge of water management. The most likely disaster to befall Malta is a major oil spill in the seas around us, which are a major route for oil tankers. An oil spill could render desalination plants useless.

The highest priority must be given to the rehabilitation and conservation of the water aquifers. Alongside the potential for maximising rainfall harvesting, waste water recycling needs to be accelerated to put in place a feasible and affordable set of actions that will win public support.

Successive Maltese governments have turned their faces away from confronting the impending water crisis. Faced with the difficult political challenges of dealing with the farmers, commercial interests and their constituents, successive ministers have preferred to live as if the crisis is not happening.

The fact is that while the biggest perceived threat to the environment has been property development and the loss of countryside, many have failed to focus on or underestimated the polluting effects of agriculture and its huge impact on water resources as a result of the extraction of groundwater.

It is an impending crisis that can no longer be ducked.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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