In 2015, the Malta Water Services Corporation produced 31.2 billion litres of potable water. About 43 per cent of this was obtained from groundwater (aquifers) and 57 per cent from Malta’s three desalination plants located at Pembroke, Ċirkewwa and Għar Lapsi.
Aquifers are freshwater saturated underground layers of permeable rock, rock fractures, gravel, sand or silt from which water can be extracted. Malta has no lakes or rivers so the aquifers are only replenished from rainfall percolating down into the ground. We do not get much rain in Malta and a substantial amount runs off into the sea.
According to the Malta Water Association, “we are pumping out water at a rate that is 50 per cent higher than the sustainable replacement by rainwater. This is leading to seawater intrusion and it will soon lead to groundwater being completely unutilisable. Moreover, most groundwater bodies show nitrate levels that exceed the EU safe limit of 50mg/l.”
The nitrates originate from the downward movement of fertilisers and animal waste into the aquifers. Continued increasing salinity caused by over extraction and the high concentration of nitrates have caused the quality of water in the aquifers to deteriorate to such an extent that it must be mixed with good quality desalinated water in order to meet drinking water standards. Instead of facing up to the problem we continue to sweep the dirt under the carpet. In the meantime, the corrosion in our water distribution system is also contributing heavy metals to our tap water.
We are told that notwithstanding all these adverse circumstances, the WSC is still managing to produce and deliver water out of our taps that falls within the EU and World Health Organisation parameters and that water in all areas in Malta is regularly monitored. To my mind this equation still does not balance as we do have a problem (real or perceived) in that most Maltese people still do not trust the quality of tap water.
There are 16 aquifers present in Malta. A performance audit in 2012 by the National Audit Office concluded that “the poor status of groundwater in both quantity and quality will continue to worsen unless decisive action is taken”. The Water Services Corporation states on its website that illegal extraction is causing the salinity in the water table to rise to unacceptable levels. I cannot fathom how, on two islands that measures 14km by 7km and 27km by 14km, we cannot put a stop to this illegal borehole activity.
A report from the British Geological Survey commissioned by the government was completed in March 2009. It showed that nitrate contaminated water takes up to 40 years to percolate to the mean sea level aquifer, which is Malta’s major natural freshwater reserve that floats on seawater and is estimated to contain 1.5 billion cubic metres. Apart from being vital for our survival, this aquifer of freshwater in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea is a natural wonder.
The agricultural fertiliser contamination of our aquifers started in the late 1970s. Do the maths – late 1970s plus 40 years brings us to 2017. We have the dubious honour to be around in the years in which nitrate contaminated groundwater is now certainly polluting our most precious mean sea level aquifer.
Politicians have known of this problem for decades and have done and do nothing. The reason appears to be that action to protect our aquifers would upset some thousands of voters who have been profiteering from this national treasure.
There are about 8,000 government licensed private boreholes extracting water from our aquifers. Some 1,300 of these are metered, with 90 of the metered boreholes used for commercial purposes and 1,210 for agricultural purposes. Some of the commercial boreholes are licensed to private water bottling and beverage companies. It seems therefore that 6,700, i.e. 84 per cent, of the licensed boreholes are not metered. From what I can see, the water extracted from all boreholes is free of charge.
The Maltese public appears not to be aware of the tragic situation our freshwater supplies are in
There are a number of actions that must be taken with urgency. Illegal boreholes should be sought out and closed. Penalties should be enforced. All boreholes into the aquifers should be metered and extraction controlled. Borehole licence holders should pay for the water, like the rest of us. Use of fertilisers and pesticides with toxic ingredients in agriculture must be curtailed and organic farming incentivised. Government must honour its commitment to put in place and implement a National Water Management Plan that will ensure long term sustainability.
The Maltese public appears not to be aware of the tragic situation our freshwater supplies are in, notwithstanding the effort of journalists, experts and NGOs, such as the MWA and the TPPI, doggedly persisting for years to bring these facts to light. We expect the Malta Resources Authority, the Water Services Corporation and the Ministry for Energy and Water Management to act with urgency. I do fear that our freshwater resources are at the mercy of industry lobby groups and unscrupulous voters and that no politician has the courage to do the right thing. This is the problem.
In 2006, a team of experts from the United Nations’ FAO conducted a thorough survey of Malta’s water resources and advised that Malta’s core water challenge is one of water governance. The report emphasised that tough decisions will have to be made immediately if the environmental sustainability of Malta’s aquifer systems is to be achieved. It pointed out that decision-making is currently fragmented, policies are poorly aligned and awareness of the consequences of continued mismanagement of the sea-level aquifers is poor.
This report was meant to be the basis for the development of the National Water Management Plan. This was 11 years ago and apart from getting a mention in electoral manifestos and the odd budget, nothing was ever done. The aquifers were again casually mentioned in this year’s Budget. Don’t hold your breath.
In April 2015, the Today Public Policy Institute (NGO) presented a report to the Prime Minister very plainly outlining the framework within which the development of a National Water Management Plan should be carried out.
Warnings and guidance from all expert and reputable sources have fallen on deaf ears. Like most of the stuff of life, this is more a question of the will to do something rather than the money to do it. The benefits for all of a National Water Management Plan are glaringly obvious. Everybody will understand the need for clean drinking water and for protecting a precious resource.
So if a National Water Management Plan would most certainly be popular with the vast majority of voters, why, I ask, have governments repeatedly stalled on this issue? Why have politicians allowed our groundwater to be depleted and contaminated to the point that it is now unfit for human consumption with a total disregard for our well-being and that of future generations?
This mismanagement has exposed Malta to a risk of freshwater shortages for the simple reason that 100 per cent of our freshwater underground resources that comprise 43 per cent of our water sources are, by everybody’s admission, undrinkable.
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