Sunday Times of Malta, 14 September 2008, by Christian Peregrin –

A man walked out of his bowser truck in broad daylight last Thursday and hooked a pipe to a borehole in a quiet street close to Mġarr. According to neighbours it is a daily ritual – he will return between 10 and 15 times a day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

However, this is not an uncommon sight in Malta, especially during the summer months; in fact, the practice has been going on for years. But illegal borehole extraction is creating serious problems for Malta, since groundwater levels are diminishing.

Only government-owned bowsers are licensed to extract groundwater, but enforcement is so lax that many make use of private boreholes on a daily basis. The water is then transported and sold to hotels, residences with swimming pools, and farms.

Hydrologist Marco Cremona says that, particularly in summer, bowsers cannot be transporting anything other than water. And if they are not owned by the Water Services Corporation, what they are doing is illegal.

The Resources Ministry last week said it would be presenting proposals to Cabinet in the coming days in a bid to crack down on illegal borehole drilling.

The Malta Resources Authority has no enforcement capacity and is therefore powerless to implement even the basic control measures.

Some private boreholes are registered, because a registration exercise was carried out in 1997. It is understood that the MRA has not issued any permits for the drilling of boreholes since it was set up in 2004.

Nevertheless, there are hundreds of registered boreholes and thousands of unregistered boreholes in operation.

According to Mr Cremona, as water prices and demand increased, more boreholes were drilled illegally – the figure runs into hundreds – either by farmers who needed free water to irrigate their fields, by industry, or enterprising individuals who thought they could make a quick buck by selling publicly-owned water at a cheaper rate than the Water Services Corporation.

With the recent surcharge increase, there is now a rush to capitalise on what remains. The result is that the quality of the groundwater is deteriorating at a faster rate than ever, according to Mr Cremona.

For more than 10 years, Mr Cremona has been campaigning for the protection of groundwater and has advocated for the municipal sewage-treatment plants to be built in areas that would allow easy distribution to agriculture and industry – as a substitute for groundwater.

Mr Cremona believes the government should announce a two-month amnesty allowing all those who own an unregistered borehole to come forward. Then a tough decision will have to be taken as to how to best allocate the 15 to 23 million cubic metres of groundwater that may be sustainably extracted from our aquifers every year. A conservative estimate of the extraction rate is 33.5 million cubic metres per year – which means that the cut-back in extraction has to be in the tune of 10 to 18 million cubic metres a year down from current levels.

“It is not fair that some individuals (and companies) are abusing our groundwater resources, stealing our water and making a buck from it while we pay so much for expensive reverse osmosis water,” Mr Cremona said.

In order to reach the water quality that Malta had in the 1960s, all groundwater extraction would have to be stopped for at least 10 years, he said.

“Of course it’s not a practical solution. But the least we could do is reduce our intake to the sustainable levels of 15 to 23 million cubic metres per year. This is also a requirement of the EU, so we have to reduce extraction whether we like it or not.”