Times of Malta, 25th June 2008

Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt said in Parliament yesterday that the Malta Resource Authority should approach the problem of illegal boreholes in a two-pronged manner: inspections of industries known to be heavy water users and comparison of their bills, and inspectors stopping bowsers in the streets and asking to see documentation of the origin of the water being carried.

Dr Gatt was winding up the parliamentary debate on the estimates of the Water Services Corporation until December 2008.

He said certain concerns mentioned in the debate should be addressed by the corporation, whose duty it was to give a better service. Now that the engineering sector and water production were on a sound footing, the WSC would be addressing the customer care services.

In the coming years the WSC must continue to shed off the government subventions as it had done during the past 10 years. It must continue to work within its own recurrent budget.

Opposition whip Joe Mizzi had complained that the corporation had not published its key performance indicators (KPIs). The minister said that these were a management tool and not meant to be made public.

The WSC had some 25 KPIs which were monitored on a quarterly basis.

Referring to worker discrimination, Dr Gatt said that the government had appointed an ombudsman and people who felt discriminated against could seek redress before him.

Interjecting, Mr Mizzi asked whether the minister could guarantee that the ombudsman’s advice would be implemented. This also applied to the injustices commission.

Continuing, Dr Gatt said that he would abide with all recommendations that could be implemented legally. He pointed out that since palming was introduced, certain workers were not skiving off work. Overtime had been controlled and people were reporting for shift work.

Answering Mr Charles Buhagiar, Dr Gatt said there was a five-year management contract for the sewage treatment plants. After five years these would definitely be commissioned to the WSC. This was a good arrangement, even if WSC engineers had gained experience on the Sant’Antnin plant. However, the two systems were completely different.

Turning to ground water extraction and the stormwater masterplan, the minister said water extraction had always posed a problem, not only because of salinity but because nowadays it was relatively easy to dig an illegal borehole. This could be done even in a garage. A previous PN administration had asked those who had illegal boreholes to register them and offered an amnesty, but only a small number had owned up. Illegal boreholing would continue as the equipment was now even more inconspicuous and pumps were very small.

Dr Gatt said that the Malta Resource Authority should use a two-pronged approach to catch those abusing the system by using two types of inspections.

Its inspectors should visit those industries known to be heavy water users, like batching plants. If they were paying much less than expected and they had no borehole registered, then it would follow that they were satisfying their needs through some other source.

Then there were those who were illegally extracting water and selling it. Everybody could see water tankers in the streets, and MRA inspectors should stop them and ask the driver where he got the water from. Minister Gatt said that stormwater harvesting must be better tackled. The WSC had EU funds for the masterplan, which had been forwarded to the MRA which, in turn, would issue a policy paper. But this would not mean a drastic decrease in water extraction. Nobody had ever calculated how much money would be saved.

It made more sense for the stormwater harvesting to come under the corporation’s wings.

Mr Buhagiar had asked why the cost for sewage treatment in Gozo was different from that of the north of Malta. The minister said there were two different tenders. The one for Gozo was open to contractors in the EU member states; the other was under the Italian financial protocol and open to the Italians only. The contract for the north plant was marginally dearer and the government was having difficulties, so much so that it was considering suspending the contract.

There was also a cost difference between the Gozo and the Sant’Antnin plants, which used different processes. Gozo was also treating the sludge and nitrate extraction which at Sant’Antin was not done. Mr Mizzi had asked whether the Gozo sludge was being thrown into the sea. Dr Gatt said it was not. It was being dried and soon a decision would be taken to see whether it could be used for farming purposes. Mr Buhagiar had asked why the south plant had been built in a particular area.

Dr Gatt said that the site had been chosen after cost benefit analyses and mostly because of the gravity principle.

To distribute the water elsewhere would have meant more tunnels and pumps, and the cost would not have made sense.

Also, the water was not ready for irrigation. It would have to be polished and this would mean further investment. Would farmers be ready to pay for the cost of the water? Under the water directive the government could not exempt them.

Under the EU directive, the polluter-pays principle stopped at the treatment stage. After that the water became a commercial asset and could not be sold at a low cost.

Referring to water bills, Minister Gatt reiterated that a financial methodology would have to be found because of the water framework directive. He did not say that subsidies would be eliminated. Those who used more water should not have the same subsidies as those who were careful in its use. It simply was not fair to penalise all across the board.

The government would incentivise conservation of water, curb wastage and penalise those who did not use it judiciously.

The government was committed that subsidies should continue in favour of those most in need and in favour of those industries which needed water for their processes.

The government would not impose a door tax as Labour had suggested. That had been a discriminate proposal under which those who filled up their swimming pools would have paid the same surcharge as those who used water normally.

Dr Gatt also referred to Mr Buhagiar’s criticism regarding the EU directive not being made known to the public before the referendum. He said that if the government had not mentioned it, neither had the opposition, which stood to gain more. He was under the impression that everyone agreed on the need of sewage treatment plants. But did the opposition mean to say that one must not pay for the service? Was it not in favour of the polluter-pays principle? The corporation had a recurrent expenditure of €5m, which it must recoup. He said he could not understand what the opposition wanted.

This was the same as the opposition’s stand on the shipyards’ privatisation.

Dr Gatt read the script of what Dr Anġlu Farrugia had said during Monday’s question time and asked the opposition to be clear and stop playing with words.

Opposition spokesman on public works Charles Buhagiar said that water production in Malta depended on consumption of energy, and therefore the link between the rising price of oil and that of water was clear.

Electricity was actually a minor factor when establishing the cost of water. Of the corporation’s €69m expense bill over the 15 months ending next December, the total electricity component in water production was a little over €10m, or about 15 per cent.

He asked the minister to explain how the corporation had arrived at the water surcharge. It was important to have a balance between the cost the consumer paid and the expenses that the corporation incurred.

Not all water production depended on electricity. It did not take much electricity to extract water. While it was impossible for Malta to get all its water from natural sources such as rainfall, more energy-saving sources should be made use of.

Mr Buhagiar augured that the stormwater masterplan, which the Labour government had started, would be implemented fully and successfully. On paper the WSC was responsible to oversee sources of water, but it was not responsible for a project like stormwater harvesting. This was the responsibility of the Department of Public Works, although strictly it should be the Malta Resource Authority’s. But the priorities of the department were not necessarily the same as those of the corporation.

The same applied for water culverts, for which the ADT was responsible so that the rainwater did not damage the roads. But the ADT was not responsible for its storage.

The Public Works Department was also responsible to see that valleys were cleared of debris so that the water filtered through to the aquifer. But if the work was not on the department’s priority list, then water would be wasted.

There needed to be a collective effort to save water.

Mr Buhagiar pointed out that many boreholes had been registered in the late 1990s but since then, many illegal ones had been dug. He could understand an illegal borehole dug by a bone fide farmer, but not one dug by someone to fill their swimming pool or, worse, to sell the water extracted. Water was a national resource, and a serious government – and the Resource Authority in particular – would identify the abusers and bring them to book. They should see that the aquifer was recharged by rainwater and not exploited by illegal means.

Water was a vital resource, but even MEPA was disregarding the fact that no wells were being built under new residences. Building inspectors never checked on this, even if they were on the approved plan.

Mr Buhagiar said that water must be produced at the least possible cost because soon all costs would have to be borne by the consumer and one could expect tariffs to explode.

Turning to the second-class water from the sewage plants, he questioned why the Gozo plant was going to be more costly to manage.

The second-class water produced by the sewage treatment plant in the south could not be used there because the farmers in the area were already fully serviced. Therefore, to put such water to use a secondary pipeline and pumping station would have to be built to distribute it somewhere else.

This meant that no real planning had been undertaken. The situation could have been put right if one had planned for two smaller plant, one of which would be built somewhere else.

The Gozo plant and the one in the north would cost some €800,000 per annum to manage, while that in the south would cost some €7 million. The only benefit the second-class water would have would be to keep the seas free of pollution.

The WSC report made no mention of the Sant’Antnin plant, because it was managed by corporation workers. How long would it be before the new plant were commissioned to the WSC so that these too would be similarly managed?

Turning to the EU water framework directive, under which all costs for water production and distribution and sewage services would have to be borne by the consumer, Mr Buhagiar recalled that during the 1996-98 Labour government the Nationalist opposition had made a fuss because it said a charge of Lm24 per door was going to be introduced. Now, the Nationalist government was going to introduce it anyway.

Nobody had told the Maltese electorate before the referendum on EU membership what this directive would mean.

All that the public had been told was that the EU was going to give Malta funds to build the plant. The government had lied to the people, and this was political dishonesty.

Nationalist MP Beppe Fenech Adami said that due to the ever-growing population and tourism, as well as industrial and agricultural demands, water was a precious resource that had to be looked after.

There had been various projects over the years to ensure this was safeguarded, and Nationalist governments had always been proactive in this sector, investing millions of liri in modern systems. It was a pity that people took water supplies for granted.

Higher oil prices were having an impact on Malta, even in the sector of water production.

The Water Services Corporation should continue to curb wastage due to leakages.

Another challenge was that of treating water so that it could be reused, in contrast to when this used to be disposed of a few years ago.

Dr Fenech Adami said that it was imperative to create a water disposal system which least harmed the environment, and people must be educated on the importance of not wasting water. People had to realise that minimising water wastage would not affect their standard of living.

Noel Farrugia (MLP) said that along with agriculture, water services were a representation of the country’s evolution over the years.

But the people had so underestimated this importance that they had paid little attention to the harvesting of rainwater and wrought havoc with water collection systems.

It was a wonder how George Pullicino had again been made Resources Minister after his years in charge of Mepa, which had its own hand in the perpetration of these problems.

Between 1996 and 1998 the then Labour government had brought together EU and FAO agricultural experts who had agreed that the way to refurbish Wied il-Qlejgħa and other valleys was to prefer soil and aquifers to the use of cement.

Malta was now having to pay for treating seawater for drinking and sewage water, even though nature had given the island its own free donations of things natural.

Mr Farrugia said the Mtarfa Bypass was an example of how things should not be done ecologically and environmentally. The result was something that discouraged environmental and agro-tourism visits.

Several years ago Lord Chadwick had been sent to various parts of the world to advise on the management of water resources. It was after him that Malta’s Chadwick Lakes were named, but the benefit from Lord Chadwick’s vast knowledge could have been much greater.

Mr Farrugia recalled the government’s promises of better things in this sector, adding that it preferred to pay more to treat sewage than safeguard the upkeep of agricultural soil. Malta’s only underground resources seemed to be water, yet Minister Pullicino in five years had done nothing to help the sector to progress.

The government was still unable to focus on Malta’s real problems in water resources, content instead to brag about the funds it was spending on problems that were only related thereto.

The water programme was still badly affecting Malta’s resources.

On sewage management he said Malta had a number of very sensitive sites where obnoxious smells could be experienced regularly through each year.

One such example was Wied Inċita, close to Mount Carmel Hospital and Malta’s aquifers.

He warned that if Malta was not going to have more hands-on experience there would be more of what had happened to Malta’s water resources.

The country needed to continually upgrade its management and responsibilities instead of continuing to spend good money on what essentially remained amateurish practices.

Everybody knew that the prices of oil and its by-products were wreaking havoc with world economies. The government should sit down with the appropriate experts and discuss what should be done to save Malta’s resources in a holistic manner, as real experts could so well do.

Mr Farrugia said it was important for the government to also listen to NGOs interested in water resources.

Most Maltese families chose to consume imported and processed water because they were not happy to trust the water from the aquifers. By contrast, the UK – from which Malta had inherited its early water resources management – boasted that the water that the people got from their taps was better than bottled water.

Malta needed to grab the bull by the horns and in a spirit of honesty both sides of the House should together see what fellow EU member states were doing to manage their natural water resources. There should be an appropriate task force, public dialogue and less conceit in facing the problem.

Mr Farrugia said the WSC would be finding it more difficult with its hydrological management unless it roped in the right and best resources to help it do a better job.