Maltatoday, 2nd July 2008, by James Debono
Boreholes could explode water prices, hydrologist Marco Cremona says, who welcomes Minister Austin Gatt’s commitment to clamp down on illegal water extraction, but insists that treated sewage effluent should be offered as an alternative to farmers.
Malta may face a situation whereby all water will soon have to be produced artificially through expensive desalination plants, pushing up the cost of water to the skies.
This stark warning comes from local hydrologist Marco Cremona, echoing a report by the Food Agricultural Organisation (FAO) which states that in the absence of concrete action to protect its ground water, Malta would have to double its water bills.
As things stand, Malta risks infringing EU Directives for failing to protect its underground aquifers and for exceeding the carbon dioxide emission allowances from the power stations, which deliver a substantial of energy for the operation of the Reverse Osmosis plant.
Speaking in parliament last week, Infrastructure Minister Austin Gatt proposed that the Malta Resources Authority should stop bowsers in the street and ask to see documentation of the origin of the water being carried.
He also proposed a comparison between the water bills and the actual water use of 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,” the minister said.
In his speech Gatt pointed out that the equipment used for illegal boreholing has become more inconspicuous, and pumps were are so small that boreholes can be drilled in a garage.
Dr Gatt was winding up the parliamentary debate on the estimates of the Water Services Corporation until December 2008.
Hydrologist Marco Cremona expressed his full agreement with Minister Austin Gatt on the need of immediate action on groundwater extraction, which is entirely illegal because nobody except the Water Services Corporation has a license to extract and sell groundwater.
He pointed out that even the few boreholes registered in the mid-1990s cannot extract groundwater.
Cremona acknowledges that a cut-back in ground water extraction would drastically affect the agricultural sector, the beverage and food processing sector, and a number of hotels that buy their water from bowsers.
In view of the rampant illegality, Cremona advocates giving an amnesty period to all those who have drilled boreholes without the necessary permit – to encourage them to come forward and register their boreholes, and giving huge fines to those who don’t register. “The boreholes should then be metered. I would suggest charging a nominal fee for extracted water up to a certain level of consumption, worked out according the amount of agricultural land/livestock for farmers. The tariff should then increase substantially so as to disincentive waste or the sale of water to third parties.”
The shortfall in the supply of groundwater can be addressed by reducing waste and abuse of this resource through the provision of water from alternative sources, of which there are mainly two: treated sewage effluent, and stormwater/rainwater harvesting.
The law that stipulates the construction of a cistern in every building should be enforced. The construction of cistern-less buildings is resulting in flooding which then requires massive investments in flood mitigation.
Re-use of sewage effluent
Despite his commitment to clamp down on illegal extraction, Austin Gatt remains sceptical on the re-use potential of treated effluent arguing that this would only be feasible if farmers are willing to pay for it.
Two years ago the same minister had declared that it would be cheaper to dispose the new supply of water to the sea than to deliver it to farmers.
The minister also pointed out that the water produced by Malta’s three sewage treatment plants will not be ready for irrigation as it would have to be polished – in layman’s terms, treated.
“Would farmers be ready to pay for the cost of the water?” the minister asked. Gatt argued that under the water directive the government could not exempt them because after its treatment, water becomes a commercial asset that cannot be sold at a low cost.
But Cremona insists that the WSC is duty bound to make treated effluent available and to provide a distribution system to facilitate the re-use of this continuous water resource.
“This should be seen as a social service, rather than a profit-making business. Today desalinated water is highly subsidised by the energy sector; I am sure that there are ways and means of financially assisting the production and distribution of treated sewage effluent – a sustainable resource.”
He also claims that the quality of the effluent may be improved through end-of-pipe polishing of the sewage effluent and enforcement of the sewerage discharge regulations.
Cremona notes that it is “unfortunate that the sewage treatment plants have been sited in areas where the demand for second class water is very low.”