Sociologist from Malta

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Boring… boring… water gone!

Michael Briguglio

Malta Today, Thursday, October 28, 2010

Malta is one of the driest countries in the world, yet sustainable use of water does not yet seem to be a national priority. If anything, the stormy weather of the past days should serve as an eye opener on the lack of water storage measures in Malta.

So should Malta’s blessing of BP’s oil drilling near Libya. Should a disaster similar to the one in the gulf of Mexico occur, Malta will simply face a national disaster given that we get around 60 per cent of our drinking water from reverse osmosis plants. Yet, this does not seem to worry the PN PL duopoly.

What about boreholes? Malta has 8,000 private boreholes, extracting ground water for various uses, including water for soft drinks, animal husbandry, manufacturing industry, concrete batching plants, swimming pools, agriculture, lawns and private gardens – making it probably the country with the highest borehole density in the world.

According to hydrologist Marco Cremona, borehole usage is totally unsustainable, and he argues that if current trends persist, this resource will no longer be available in around 15 years time, due to the infiltration of sea water in the water table. This will take us back to square one, where Malta will become totally dependent on reverse osmosis water, which is very costly to produce. In short, we can only expect much costlier utility bills.

The current free-for-all situation and the recent increases in mains water tariffs has encouraged those who use large amounts of water to drill boreholes or purchase water extracted from boreholes. This is nothing but theft of a strategic resource, whilst everyone else is paying their utility bills.

It is high time that groundwater is protected, coupled with sustainable measures on storm water and recycled sewage.

It is positive that government shall embark on a system to meter boreholes, but surely this is not enough. As a first immediate step, all non-registered. boreholes should be banned. The Water Services Corporation should have the priority for the use of groundwater. This would enable national planning for sustainable usage of this strategic resource, also taking account of the needs of future generations. This would also be beneficial for the consumer of town water, the only public water supply in the country. The present situation where the WSC production sources are deteriorating in quality because of rampant extraction by private boreholes, to the detriment of the general public and the resource is unacceptable and flies in the face of social justice.

Farmers should also be permitted to use groundwater, but a rational planned system should be in place, encouraging sustainable practices. Hence, a quota subject to either no payment or minimal payments should be established in relation to the size of the fields that farmers work on. In the long-term, however, agriculture should be made to shift towards recycled water, where farmers should be given good-quality, subsidised treated sewage effluent.

The usage of groundwater by industry – including that of a major soft drinks company which was ironically recently awarded an environmental prize – should be banned immediately and industry should purchase town water just as everybody else. Although this may result in a dent in their profits it will certainly not put local bottlers out of business, especially since big consumers already benefit from a subsidized tariff for town water.

Industry should use recycled water when possible, and in any case, it should pay commercial rates for this essential resource. If a company cannot factor in the price of water in its expenses, this would be a clear sign that the company is dependent on unsustainable practices.

The water issue is ultimately an issue of environmental justice, social justice and economic good-sense. How could it be that such a scarce resource is being treated as if it had unlimited supply, and how come those who are grabbing it for free are being rewarded for doing so?

The Nationalist and Labour Parties do not seem to be perturbed in the least on the water problem. Short-term price populism is blinding them to the need for concrete action. For this reason that Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party is calling for those interested in campaigning to save Malta’s water to join forces.

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