Water - waste not, want not

After ten years of EU membership, we have succeeded to join the club of Mediterranean states that have recognized the formidable challenges of climate change, challenges important enough to have seriously started to plan for a sustainable supply of that precious commodity - drinking water.

Our elected leaders constantly remind us of our duty to conserve water, stating that gone are the old days when water was supplied for free. It was eight years ago that FAO warned us that water scarcity is turning into a major problem. In its 2006 Review it stated: “Malta’s core water challenge is one of water governance.

“Tough decisions will have to be made immediately if the environmental sustainability of Malta’s aquifer systems is to be achieved. Decision making is currently fragmented, policies are poorly aligned, and awareness of the consequences of continued mismanagement of the sea-level aquifers is poor”.

This looks like a sober warning to the government of the day that further depletion of water from the aquifers is potentially leading to higher salinity. Naturally the illegal extraction of water by farmers is ongoing but the main culprits are industry, especially the beverages and minerals producers. Tourism is also a heavy user due to our success in attracting more visitors especially during summer - this has continued to exacerbate the problem.

The potential impact of climate change on the environment and socio-economic systems in terms of sensitivity, adaptability and vulnerability of such factors also impact our island habitat. Based on a recent scientific report, it stresses the magnitude and the rate of climate change that may directly impinge on the industrial, commercial and tourist sectors in Malta.

Although much progress has been made to improve both air and water quality, there are still large uncertainties in predicting regional climate changes but one thing is certain - climate change leads to higher temperatures and the possible erosion of our few sandy beaches. As can be expected, its impact will reflect on the vulnerability of our ecological system as an island so dependent on tourism.

Global warming is real and to quote one example, this has raised the temperature in the Canadian Arctic by 4C in the past 50 years.  Scientific reports state the example of Hudson Bay, where the ice melts completely in summer, scientists have noted that due to global warming, it is now happening three weeks earlier than normal.

Closer to home, we turn a blind eye to the irreversible damage to climate when we allow emissions from power stations, heavy transport vehicles and the hospital incinerator to go unchecked in a densely populated island. One reason our Marsa power station is allowed to spew out so much pollution is our mistaken perception, perpetuated in the past, that it will soon be dismantled.

Can we tolerate such attitude when the European Commission decided last year that member states had to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent between 2008-2015? 

Being an island, we really should be paying more attention to the harmful effects of fertilisers, sulphides and insecticides in farming, which cause irreparable damage to the water table. In spite of this danger, we are assured that daily tests on water samples are carried out to monitor the situation and official statistics show that in 2006, a total of 5,109 samples were collected, which gave rise to approximately 54,516 tests, of which around 38,286 were physical and chemical tests and 16,230 were bacteriological tests.

These tests showed that there were no instances of contamination or non-conformity with the fear of high nitrate concentrations in groundwater. But we cannot rest on our laurels based on the quality of drinking water only. In the future, we must reform our habits and start the treatment of sewage and the reuse of good-quality effluent to furnish such resource to industry and agriculture.

It will appear like a dream come true if we could mitigate the problem of depleted aquifers by commissioning large-scale wastewater treatment plants. These could potentially filter massive volumes of sewage, turning it into a reliable continuous supply of second-class water all year round.

It goes without saying that treated sewage affluent, when polished to specific standards, will potentially reduce pressure on our heavily-exploited aquifers and the subsequent de-nitrification of the water it produces. It is a pity if we don't plan ahead to harness such a resource but it is encouraging that the first batch of polished water may be used to fill Dock One, which is expected to embellish Cottonera waterfront improving its tourist attraction.

A nature lover may suggest that, in the absence of reservoirs, we may embellish the valleys, filling them with such polished water and through use of pumps for circulation create miniature lakes. Try visualising Wied Babu or the picturesque Nadur valley brimming with recycled water in the thick of summer.

This could easily be turned into a tourist attraction creating a small man-made lake sporting luzzu rides,water fountains and display of colored jets dancing to music in the evening. Imagine building a Laguna similar to that installed at Smart City- this will permit water to filter into the water table thereby slowly replenish its currently deleted state.

This could be a short-term solution to the drought that is expected to haunt us as a result of global warming, mentioned earlier in this article. Scientific evidence predicts a twenty per cent reduction in rainfall by the end of the century. So can wastewater treatment on a professional scale be a viable solution to establish equilibrium in our eco system?  It certainly does not come cheap.

For a number of years, we invested in plants to distill water from the sea and later started using modern reverse osmosis plants to supplement rainwater but the costs of production have soared. Water is now an expensive and scare resource.

The Water Services Corporation often complains that the sewers are sometimes abused by users illegally dumping items in the system that block the filtration process. These include ropes, small animals, animal parts, tarmac and gallons of used oil. When asked to quantify this extra expense, a spokesman for the corporation said this costs an extra €1 million annually in the Xgħajra plant alone.

Due to strict EU regulations, the filtration process has to be extra stringent to remove a range of pollutants that may include bodily waste, bacteria and viruses, detergents and other chemicals used for washing, and chemicals discharged from industries.  The bacteria and viruses in sewage are for the most part harmless creatures yet some if left untreated may bring about diseases like typhoid.

It is a well-known fact that water is a major component of sewage and up to a few years ago, sewage was untreated and pumped offshore into sea. This practice is now discontinued as it used to be harmful to marine creatures and polluted the sea, making under certain circumstances some places unsuitable for bathing. 

European law requires that sewage be treated before it is discharged into sea and, thanks to EU funding, three major plants have been commissioned to treat all sewage before discharge.

Presently there are three active sewage treatment plants – at Iċ-Ċumnija in Mellieħa, at Ta’ Barkat in Xgħajra on the outskirts of Żabbar, and at Ras il-Ħobz in Gozo. They do us proud, making Malta the first country in the Mediterranean and the seventh in the EU to treat all its sewage. The obvious question that follows is why are we so parsimonious with our money when we can invest more into further treatment of sewage to render it usable as second-class water- a much needed supplement for agriculture and industry.

Surely it does make sense to treat sewage, remove pollutants, polish it and then build enough reservoirs to store it and finally invest in extensive distribution network to reuse such water. Last month the government gave the go-ahead for the first water polishing plant at Ta’ Barkat that will turn 12,000 cubic metres of treated sewage into 9,600 cubic metres of high quality water, while MEPA approved an underground pipe built by micro-tunnelling to transport reclaimed water to the Sant’Antnin treatment plant in Marsascala and supply existing reservoirs.

The plan is for other two sewage treatment plants to be upgraded in a similar way to polish water by removing viruses and bacteria, until it reaches the standard of potable water.

We can rejoice that after ten years of EU membership, we have succeeded to join the club of Mediterranean states that have recognized the formidable challenges of climate change, challenges important enough to have seriously started to plan for a sustainable supply of that precious commodity - drinking water.