Local table water bottlers are extracting millions of litres of water from the public underground aquifer every year without paying a cent and then selling it back to the public, The Sunday Times has learnt.

Since Malta's limited fresh water reserves are not regulated, there is no restriction on the quantities that bottlers may extract for commercial purposes. They do not even have a licence to exploit this public resource, the Malta Resources Authority (MRA) confirmed.

When contacted, the MRA said that reverse osmosis (RO) plants operated by bottlers required water extracted from the underground aquifer, placing more pressure on the fresh water supply.

"So far, water extracted from the aquifer is free of charge... Industry and commercial enterprise take a substantial share of this precious resource," an MRA spokesman said.

It is only the Water Services Corporation (WSC) that is authorised to harness the nation's freshwater supply for public consumption. Yet, the authorities continue to turn a blind eye to bottling companies.

Even those companies that have registered their boreholes or RO plants with the Health Department (not all bottling companies have done so) are still not licensed to consume public water for commercial purposes.

When asked whether the amount of water extracted by bottlers could be quantified, the MRA said: "There is insufficient information to estimate this amount."

The latest figures available on the consumption of bottled water date back to 2001. Then, 41.3 million litres of local bottled water and seven million litres of imported water were consumed, according to figures quoted by the Consumers' Association. Since then, global figures for bottled water consumption have increased annually.

The production processes used to produce local table water differ. Some rely completely on the water table to maximise profits, while others use tap water that is paid for and mix it with 'free' extracted water to drive down costs. They then sell it back to the public in bottles at a sizeable profit.

Since extracted water is high in nitrates and salinity, it is passed through a RO plant to make it suitable for drinking. However, no RO plant is 100 per cent efficient, which leads to waste.

The process is similar to that used by the WSC to provide tap water, which is a blend of groundwater and RO water. The pressure on groundwater sources resulting from the unregulated extraction of water from boreholes, has led to a greater reliance on RO plants, increasing the cost of water for consumers.

Last year, 45 per cent of tap water distributed by the WSC came from groundwater sources at a cost of €4.7 million. The remaining amount of water produced from desalination plants (55 per cent) cost €23.5 million. A stocktake of groundwater resources carried out late last year by the MRA revealed the existence of about 2,600 previously unknown boreholes. The total number of registered boreholes has now risen to 10,000.

Quarries, batching plants, carwashes, slaughterhouses and other manufacturing firms have also reported usage of groundwater through boreholes, the MRA said.

The stock take formed part of efforts to crack down on borehole drilling, particularly as the extraction of groundwater is estimated at about 31 million cubic metres a year, eight million cubic metres above that recommended for sustainable extraction.

"It is the beginning of a long-term process whereby groundwater exstraction will be conducted in a regulated manner for the purpose of restoring the quality of groundwater and aquifer reserves for the benefit of the population," an MRA spokesman said.

Plans focus on regaining the natural characteristics of groundwater as required by the EU Water Framework Directive, which sets these targets for 2015.


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