Unless Malta changed the way it got its water, it risked shortages in a time of crisis, just like Haiti did, according to an expert.

"Malta needs to reduce its dependence on aquifers not only for environmental reasons but mostly for strategic reasons," Marco Cremona, an engineer specialised in water studies and hydrology, told a conference on sustainable environment organised by Koperattivi Malta yesterday.

"Our island is in a seismic region. What would happen if an earthquake struck and our water supply was cut? If our aquifer was intact, all we would need was a rig and a generator to produce clean water," Mr Cremona explained, waving Sunday's The Observer, whose front page read Frantic Race To Get Clean Water To Survivors, referring to the Haiti earthquake aftermath.

All eyes were on Mr Cremona's presentation as he highlighted the shortcomings of Malta's water usage, especially when it came to agriculture, which depends heavily on water extracted from the aquifer. Malta has over 8,600 registered boreholes; 30 per square kilometre, the highest borehole density in the world.

According to Mr Cremona, Malta depends too much on the water from the aquifer and that produced by reverse osmosis, both of which are not sustainable.

"Ironically, Malta would run out of water if the world ran out of oil," Dr Cremona said. Reverse osmosis, supplying 55 per cent of Malta's water, depends on electricity to run.

Water from the aquifer is also at risk: "We're extracting far more water than is going in. Since the aquifer is at sea level, the fresh water we extract is being replaced with salt water," Mr Cremona said.

He pointed towards a graph showing water production from boreholes over the last 11 years. "If we extrapolate this, we might end up with no fresh water in the aquifer by the next 15 years."

All hope is not lost; right now, however, most water is.

"We're finding new ways of getting rid of water in the new flood relief systems when, at the same time, we spend a lot of money producing what we could be getting for free artificially through reverse osmosis," Mr Cremona remarked, referring to the flood relief projects announced recently.

On the other hand, the infrastructure was already available to collect and store rainwater: 31 small dams across major drainage lines, with a combined capacity of 154,000 cubic metres, and open reservoirs built in the 1970s, with a combined total volume of 250,000 cubic metres were already in place and only needed repairs.

Meanwhile, some of the dams and reservoirs, after years of disuse, are being used as gardens or storage rooms.

The hydrologist added that even though the law laid down that every building had to have a well, only about 10 per cent of units built in the last 10 years had one.

"The Water Resources Review of 2006 estimates that a 25 cubic metre cistern or equivalent in every household would result in the collection of about 4.5 million cubic metres of rainwater, which amounts to more than 40 per cent of the official billed domestic water consumption."

Harvested rainwater did not need to be treated to be used to wash clothes, floors, and cars, for gardening or flushing.

Another alternative for sustainable water production was to use recycled sewage, which would be good for irrigation. This, however, was quite a problem because the sewage treatment plants were nowhere close Malta's main agricultural areas.

Mr Cremona asked: "What would farmers prefer, a supply of treated effluent forever or 'free' groundwater for 15 years?"

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