Updated at 10.50am: add statement by Water Services Corporation and the Energy and Water Agency

Groundwater extraction is being measured by the Water Services Corporation but the State entity would not comment when asked about serious concerns that the water table is being depleted.

The issue was raised at a news conference held on Friday next to the Tal-Providenza Chapel, in the limits of Siġġiewi, which marked the announcement of a plan to improve the water distribution network.

The project is scheduled for completion within the next three to four years.

Energy and Water Minister Joe Mizzi noted that these works are part of a wider programme which is being funded by the EU to the tune of €100 million. The overall objective is to safeguard Malta’s limited water resources, reduce losses and improve quality of potable water.

Read: Imminent water crisis

On his part, WSC CEO Richard Bilocca remarked that residents of Siġġiewi, Qrendi and Żebbuġ would be benefitting from this project which will comprise the laying of 45 kilometres of pipes. Furthermore, households will no longer be supplied directly from boreholes, but groundwater will be pumped to the Qrendi reservoir and mixed with that produced from other sources in order to improve its overall quality.

Asked what measures were being taken to monitor the volume of groundwater being extracted, Mr Bilocca noted that water meters have been installed at borehole sites, and the data monitored in real-time by the WSC.

“As part of this project, an automated system will be installed so that if the water quality drops, pumping from that borehole will be suspended,” he said.

Moreover, water production from reverse osmosis plants will be increase to reduce further dependency on ground water. The CEO also pointed out that farmers were being urged to use water from polishing plants in order to reduce groundwater extraction. 

Questioned if the corporation was in a position to tell if there was over-extraction from privately-owned boreholes, Mr Bilocca declined to give any details but confirmed they were in possession of this data.

When pressed further on the matter, the Energy Minister interjected saying that government was monitoring the situation with the intent of taking any necessary remedial action.

Read: Risk of fresh water shortages

Concerns about water table have been repeatedly raised by environmentalists as well as the Malta Water Association which has been calling for a national plan for years. Such plan, however, is yet to see the light of day.

According to the National Statistics Office, total groundwater abstraction in 2014 was of 44.4 million of cubic metres, which was the second highest level since 2005. The bulk of this water is used for irrigation by the agricultural sector, followed by that used for public water and manufacturing industries.

The over-dependence on the water table was also highlighted through the water exploitation index which measures the volume of water pumped from boreholes as a percentage of Malta’s freshwater resources.

It transpires that between 2005 and 2014, the last year when the NSO had published this data, the index rose from 34.7 to 46.5.

Water Services Corporation and the Energy and Water Agency statement

In a statement on Saturday, the Water Services Corporation and the Energy and Water Agency said in 2016 Malta published its a national water management plan which outlines the roadmap for the achievement of the environmental objectives of the EU’s Water Framework Directive.

These objectives included the achievement of good groundwater quantitative status, namely that groundwater abstraction fell below the mean annual recharge. The Implementation of the national plan was being backed by a €17 million EU funded project.

This plan, an official government document submitted to the EU Commission, confirmed the existence of over-abstraction in the two main aquifer systems in the Maltese islands. It included a programme of measures which outlined the actions to be undertaken by the government up to 2021 to address groundwater over-abstraction and ensure the sustainable use of water resources in the future.

The programme of measures included initiatives such as the development of a national water conservation campaign, incentive schemes for operators in the agricultural sector to better manage their water use, the new water programme, the rehabilitation of water catchment areas in valleys and the introduction of new practices such as managed aquifer recharge schemes.

It is also highlighted that flow meters had been installed on practically all legal (registered) groundwater boreholes. These were fitted with automated metering modules which transmitted abstraction data to a central database.

Data on groundwater abstraction by the agricultural sector was therefore being collected and monitored. With the collaboration of the Department of Agriculture, this data was being analysed so that cases of misuse could be identified and farmers given advice on how to optimise their water use.

The results of the borehole metering programme have shown that the actual groundwater abstraction levels of the agricultural sector are significantly lower than the estimated potential water demand obtained through statistical projections.

This, they said, was a reasonable result, given the investments undertaken in recent years by the agricultural sector in water-efficient irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation.

They said that all cases of illegal groundwater abstraction sources reported to the authorities were followed through the provisions of the relative legislation. These included administrative fines, the closure of the borehole and referral to court should the illegalities persist.

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