Water, soil, air and species biodiversity are what create ecosystems. The earth’s ecosystems sustain all human activity, including economic activity.
When it comes to freshwater conservation, policymakers should not only consider the sustainable extraction of fresh water for human and economic needs but also ensure that it does not overshoot the country’s ecological boundaries. Awareness of these boundaries is fundamental as freshwater in glaciers and ice, in rivers and lakes, in water courses and ponds, in wetlands and valleys, in springs and aquifers that create the wild habitats and maintain biodiversity are essential for the survival of people.
In Malta, the supply of freshwater for households, agriculture and industry comes from government boreholes into underground freshwater aquifers (40 per cent) and from the desalination of seawater (60 per cent).
Desalination has played a critical part in Malta’s water strategy. There are also over 8,000 private registered boreholes used for extracting water from the aquifers and more thousands of illegal boreholes, easily making Malta the country with the highest groundwater extraction density in the world.
In 2006, a team of experts from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation had warned that Malta’s core water challenge is water mismanagement. In 2012, a National Audit Office report concluded that “the poor status of groundwater will continue to worsen unless decisive action is taken”.
The European Waters report for 2018 had listed Malta among the countries where groundwater levels are drying up fast. The report said that 80 per cent of the islands’ groundwater reserves were ‘poor’, which was the worst situation from all the countries analysed. Following this report, Malta’s Energy and Water Agency pointed out that it was the uncontrolled and the illegal extraction that was causing the aquifers to dry up.
Over-extraction of groundwater has caused seawater to seep into and contaminate the aquifers. Since at least the 1970s, nitrates from fertilisers, pesticides and manure used in agriculture have been percolating down, contaminating all Malta’s aquifers and, finally, reaching the mean sea level aquifer, which is Malta’s last-resort, natural freshwater reserve.
Groundwater is only replenished by rainfall over decades.
The government has just initiated a groundwater monitoring system to test quality and pollution levels at a number of agricultural sites. When completed, another government programme, for ‘new water’, should see water coming from the urban wastewater treatment plants being purified by three water polishing plants to produce an annual seven million cubic metres of water suitable for crop irrigation, landscaping and industry. This is equivalent to 35 per cent of the volume used for agriculture.
New water, and incentives for farmers to optimise water use and restoration of valleys to improve water retention, are all commendable initiatives but are not enough.
The over-exploitation and contamination of the country’s groundwater reserves continues uncontrolled. Experts warn that the current trend of low rainfall, caused by global warming, is likely to continue with the islands expected to become a desert (under 250mm of rainfall annually) by the end of the century. The first impacts of the desertification process are expected to be felt by 2030.
The importance of freshwater for the well-being of the population can hardly be overstated. Water scarcity will also hit other countries and this will affect the food supply chain and food security.
The illegal boreholes, so far sanctioned by politicians, must be disclosed and sealed and strict fines and controls implemented. There must also be an end to the free groundwater regime on the registered boreholes.
Bold decisions must be taken to secure the future of the Maltese population.
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