Times of Malta, 7th September 2008, by Herman Grech –

The Resources Ministry will be presenting proposals to Cabinet in the coming days in a bid to crack down on the illegal and unsustainable level of borehole drilling, The Sunday Times has learnt.

It is still not known what measures will be recommended to tackle a major problem which has been ignored by the authorities for many years.

Figures provided by the ministry in reply to a series of questions are alarming: the current abstraction level of groundwater is around 30 million cubic metres a year, seven million cubic metres more than the sustainable yield. Over half of Malta’s tap water (57 per cent) is now derived from the reverse osmosis plants.

“Further policy and enforcement measures to counter illegal drilling are being discussed by the ministry. A memo is being prepared which will hopefully lead to consideration and a decision by Cabinet. In the circumstances, it is not prudent to speculate on the final outcome,” the spokesman said.

Hydrologist Marco Cremona, however, believes the ministry is downplaying the gravity of the situation by inflating the sustainable yield figures and lowering abstraction levels.

In answer to a parliamentary question last year, former Resources Minister Ninu Zammit said that water abstraction by the Water Services Corporation was 15 million cubic metres, while illegal abstraction was 18.5 million cubic metres.

“So unless the WSC has drastically reduced its abstraction rate, I’m inclined to think that the more recent numbers are incorrect. I think illegal practices have increased as evidenced by the scores of bowsers on the road. I would like to know how the Malta Resources Authority is estimating illegal abstraction,” Mr Cremona said.

Mr Cremona said that since it was impossible to obtain a licence for the drilling of a borehole, any water drilling rigs should be seized. Anybody wishing to drill should obtain a licence from the MRA and then engage the WSC to carry out the drilling.

Increasing the water tariffs (as the government is expected to do when it revises the system next month) without controlling illegal extraction of groundwater is suicidal, according to Mr Cremona. Any increase in tariffs would invariably lead to the drilling of more boreholes.

“Since the surcharge increase, I’ve personally been approached by individuals and industrial concerns who want to reactivate their borehole or drill a new one. This is also a threat to public health. Groundwater supplies can be contaminated and can come into contact with humans, especially when used as a substitute to potable water, such as swimming pools.”

Unlike several other countries, Malta’s groundwater is the only natural source of fresh water. As an EU member, Malta also has to abide with the EU Water Framework Directive that stipulates the need for cost recovery of water services by 2010. This essentially means that all subsidies will have to stop.

Calculated on a per-capita basis, Malta is the ninth thirstiest country in the world. The dependence on reverse osmosis water has been increasing year after year, in order to compensate for the consistent deterioration in the quality of groundwater supplies.