Leading beverage company General Soft Drinks has admitted that free groundwater forms around half of the mix in its bottled water, but said its product was subjected to several treatment processes at the company's new multi-million euro plant before being sold to the public.

Farsons, meanwhile, said it paid for the water it used for its bottled water and non-carbonated drinks. Rather than sourcing its water from the underground aquifer, it uses mains water, which means the water already meets safety standards before it goes through further processes of treatment.

After The Sunday Times revealed last week that some bottlers are extracting millions of litres of free water annually from the public underground aquifer, it visited bottling plants and contacted major bottlers, asking about their production and treatment processes (refer to table).

General Soft Drinks said its bottled water, Kristal, was a mix of roughly equal proportions of mains water and borehole water.

The boreholes are located at the company's old plant in Qormi and the water extracted is transported by means of a pipeline. The same blend of water is also used for the production of all the company's locally-produced non-carbonated drinks, including Coca Cola and Sprite.

Two companies rely completely on the underground aquifer as a source for bottled water: Nibe Beverages, which produces Gocce and Aquani in 19-litre refillable bottles, and Aquatess Marketing for its Aqua Azzurra brand. The water undergoes treatment processes to meet required standards.

All three companies using underground aquifer defended their use of free public water. Speaking to The Sunday Times, General Soft Drinks general manager Maria Micallef acknowledged that the company was extracting public reserves for free, but said "the company makes no profit on the water".

She added that if General Soft Drinks had to import the water, 30 employees would be made redundant and the company would spend €6 million abroad instead of ploughing the money into local economy.

"We have invested around €12 million in the bottling process, which has high annual running costs, to ensure our products are of the highest quality and in line with legislation. Ten employees are dedicated directly to the quality assurance of our product and an additional 25 are directly employed for the production of Kristal water," Ms Micallef said.

Farsons produces three brands of bottled water - San Michel, Aquadot and Elan - as well as soft drinks such as Kinnie and Pepsi.

Farsons Group chief executive Louis Farrugia said: "All the original source of the water used in these brands and the packaged water (we also package water for two supermarket chains) is from the government town water supply. One just cannot refer to the finished product as 'tap water' since considerable cost and value is added to purify the water. On San Michel's website we declare the analysis and how we purify the water."

Mr Farrugia said the company extracted water from three wells free of charge but the water was "used exclusively for cleaning purposes".

"Our purchase price (for mains water) covers all the Water Services Corporation (WSC)'s costs and we have made representations that this high cost impedes our competitiveness... so no way is the Farsons Group making large profits from the sale of water products," Mr Farrugia added.

Mains water is billed at €1.40 per cubic metre. According to the most recent KPMG report, the cost for WSC for the production of water from reverse osmosis plants is €1.38 per cubic metre. Therefore, those bottlers relying on mains water - which also include the brands Fontana and H2Only - cover the production costs of mains water while those companies taking water from the underground aquifer free themselves of charges and tariffs levied by government.

A statement issued by the Malta Resources Authority (MRA) two days ago confirmed the problems resulting from a lack of regulation: "Salinity is high in the major aquifers because of over-abstraction, while nitrates are steadily increasing everywhere. Some of the perched aquifers have been completely decommissioned from the public supply as nitrates exceed the EU limit by more than three times."

The MRA said recent economic developments lead to additional pressure on groundwater: "Irrigated agriculture, the processing industry, commercial enterprise, and the high-end domestic sector make use of groundwater in an unregulated manner."

The registration of boreholes started in 1997. Twelve years later, the MRA is still saying there is insufficient information to enforce regulation and the target for that is 2015. Last year, the government set a one-year moratorium on the drilling of new boreholes.

Eleven million cubic metres of water are over-pumped from the aquifers annually so the WSC is obliged to place more reliance on desalinated water to meet domestic water requirements. More than 57 per cent of mains water is produced by reverse osmosis, which is four times more costly than groundwater and drives up the cost for household use.

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