Hydrologist Marco Cremona gave a relatively good picture of the water situation in these islands (The Sunday Times, October 24). The situation is quite grim; it was brought about by the authorities’ recklessness since 1987. Before that there were only some 150 boreholes – all under the control of the then Water Works Department.
After the 1987 election, farmers were led to believe that anyone could drill a borehole if they wanted to. In fact, hardly anyone was taken to court. The number of boreholes shot up to over 6,000 by 1996.
However, it was the Labour government elected that year that decided to register all illegal boreholes. All hell broke loose among the farming community and all were persuaded that now they would have their boreholes closed or be charged for any water drawn.
This political gimmick worked to perfection. Before the referendum on the EU membership I heard a Nationalist MP tellfarmers that his administration had turned a blind eye to illegal boreholes. The farmers tookthe hint and practically allvoted PN.
Now we are in a situation where if you insist that farmers seal their boreholes they might as well change trade. If we let them draw the water they need, the lower aquifer would gradually become saltier. The government would then have to mix this water with the water produced at great cost through reverse osmosis plants.
The upper aquifer is polluted with nitrates, sometimes reaching six times the acceptable level. This aquifer was created by the farming community ages ago, by digging the shafts to reach the water on the layer of clay that resides below the Rabat-Dingli area.
Now, the water drawn from the shafts is only fit for agriculture. If not drawn it will find its way to the lower aquifer and pollute it.
The curing of this water would take many years even if no manure or fertilisers are added to the soil. The soil in this area is very poor and in most cases is a mixture of many soil types because the land is mostly reclaimed from rocky stretches using soil from all over the island.
Another factor that has to be taken in consideration is that the extraction is limited and proportional to the amount of rainfall. If not drawn up by farmers it would flow onto the lower areas and refill the lower aquifer. But as things stand this water is heavily polluted so it will do more harm than good as it will dirty the lower aquifer as well.
This means that those in the upper aquifer area should really be encouraged to use all the water they can, whether metered or not, so that it will not overflow to the lower aquifer. Indeed, the state should be grateful towards those who use this water, and not charge them.
Plants take only a certain amount of water; the rest will find its way back to the rocks. Luckily, practically all farmers use drip irrigation, so no water is wasted. However, because of higher temperatures, trees have to be watered in summer too, like the vegetable crop.
The first thing to do is to prevent most of the rainwater from ending up in the sea. Seven years ago I suggested that all roundabouts should be turned into huge reservoirs. The idea, unfortunately, was shot down. Birkirkara would have avoided yearly floods and millions of litres of water would have been saved.
Water can be saved by constructing reservoirs or utilising quarries where feasible. These must be connected to a distribution system so that farmers have water on tap. This system would take years to build and would cost money, but in the end it would become cost-effective in terms of water supply, with less reliance on borehole extraction.
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