Careful what you pray for...

Who, then, even needs God Almighty to be pissed off? Quite frankly, it is a shocking scandal that should really enrage us all

If I were God Almighty… well, I’d be almighty pissed off with this country right now.

I mean, just look at it from His perspective for a moment. For years and years (if not centuries and centuries) all He ever got to hear from Malta - apart, naturally, from the somewhat liberal use of His (and His Mother’s) name as a swearword - were ‘prayers for rain’.

As recently as February 2016, former Gozo Bishop Mario Grech even led a ‘penitential pilgrimage’ to that effect: and OK, it took the Good Lord a good long while to actually respond: four whole years, to be precise.

But then again, He also compensated for the delay by sending us pretty much all four years’ worth of rainfall, in the space of around four hours flat.

The result? Well, let’s just say we weren’t exactly very ‘grateful’ for the blessing.  Not only did we did respond to the ensuing floods by taking the Lord’s (and His Mother’s) name in vain more loudly than usual… but we didn’t even bother trying to harvest a single drop of all the precious rainwater He so generously threw at us from the Heavens above.

No, indeed. After all those years of ‘praying for rain’, all we did when it finally came was sit back and watch helplessly, as our roads and thoroughfares transformed into rivers and torrents… carrying untold quantities of precious fresh water – of the kind we spend literally billions of euros to produce through Reverse Osmosis - straight back into the sea, where it is of absolutely no use to anyone.

And if, like me – or God Almighty, for that matter – you consider that to be a criminal waste of a fundamentally vital natural resource… well, it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Let’s take a step back and revisit what happened yesterday. According to Transport Minister Ian Borg – who was on the receiving end of perfectly justified criticism, given that the recent infrastructural road projects have clearly contributed to the problem – the amount of rain that fell in those four hours was around “20% of the usual yearly rainfall.”

And while that certainly constitutes a deluge of quasi-Biblical proportions… it is by no means unheard-of, or even particularly unusual for this time of year.

As far back as I can remember, Malta has always been prone to precisely such violent, unexpected Autumn cloudbursts. Likewise, the floods we experienced this week are nothing new.

Some of you might remember, for instance, the rather macabre scenes of October 2010: when coffins, no less, were seen floating down the streets of Qormi during a similar flash-flood.

At the same time, however… well, that’s precisely the point. We are now in 2020, not 2010: and one of the major differences between now and then, is that Malta has since undertaken an ambitious, EU-funded, E54 million infrastructural project – begun in 2007, and completed in 2017 - aimed precisely at solving this perennial flood problem of ours, once and for all.

In case you’ve forgotten the details, here are a couple of snippets from the European Commission website:

“Prior to the EU-funded National Flood Relief Project (NFRP), Malta lacked an adequate storm-water management system. Thanks to various efforts by the NFRP, today the country benefits from a network of underground tunnels, canals and bridges that provide the Maltese islands with proper storm-water drainage.”

“The four different catchments affected are: Birkirkara-Msida; Gzira; Qormi-Marsa; and Marsascala.”

Well, I need hardly add that the same areas mentioned above, also happened to (once again) be the worst-hit by yesterday’s floods… which inevitably raises a teenie-weenie little question.

What on earth went wrong? How did we even manage to spend E54 million in European tax-payer’s money, and not only fail to alleviate the flooding problem in those areas… but actually make it considerably worse?

There could, of course, be all sorts of technical answers: the design of the project might have been flawed from the outset; short-cuts might have been taken at implementation stage; or it could simply boil down to a lack of proper maintenance (let’s face it: there’s not much point in ‘constructing a network of underground tunnels’, if we don’t bother clearing them out when they get clogged up by debris).

But something tells me the answer has less to do with the National Flood Relief Project itself, than with all the other ‘projects’ that have also been completed in the meantime: including all the construction and development that has been allowed to take place – much of it  in previously undeveloped areas - over the past seven or so years.

For the main cause of flooding is not so much the amount of rain that falls over any given time-period… but where all that rainwater actually lands, and what happens to it after it makes contact with the surface.

In years gone by, much of yesterday’s four inches of rain would have landed in fields – where a fair proportion would have been absorbed by the soil, eventually trickling down to replenish the water-table beneath.

A lot more of it would have landed on rocky garigue… only to be diverted into natural river-valleys: again to be absorbed by soil, and also by the roots of trees and other vegetation.

And yes, a good deal of it would still have ended up flooding our roads – this is not, after all, a ‘new’ problem - only nowhere near as much as we all witnessed this week.

The difference today, however, is that when four inches of rain fall in the space of a few hours… great quantities of it will invariably land on rooftops: only to immediately cascade through culverts onto the streets below.

And what is a ‘street’, anyway… if not a smooth (well, smooth-ish), flat, asphalt surface which is utterly incapable of absorbing even the tiniest water droplet… still less hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of freshly-fallen rain?

Viewed from this angle, there is little point in blaming the evident failure of a multi-million EU-funded ‘storm relief’ project. No amount of European taxpayer’s money can possibly counterbalance all the damage we have done in recent years… among other things, by permitting huge swathes of arable land to be eaten up by development; by uprooting trees at every possible opportunity; and above all, by embarking on one major roadworks project after another… all aimed at building new roads, or widening existing ones, so as to provide rainwater with as many opportunities for flooding as conceivably possible.

But the biggest irony of them all is that… while we so casually (and irresponsibly) allow such vast amounts of fresh water to gush so uselessly past us with every cloudburst… we will later re-extract it from the sea – by means of Reverse Osmosis: arguably the most expensive, energy-guzzling technology known to man – so as to turn it back into precisely the same thing it was just the day before: fresh, potable water, of the kind we’ve been praying for all these years; and of which we’ve just been given so much, in such a short time, for absolutely free.

As things stand, around 60% of the water supplied to Maltese homes by the Water Services Corporation is produced through RO desalination plants… with the rest being extracted directly from the aquifer through boreholes.

And just to give you a rough idea of the cost involved: in 2008, former Energy Minister Austin Gatt revealed in Parliament that “while the production costs of extracting from the water table amounts to €13, it costs the Water Services Corporation €49 to produce the same amount of desalinated water. […] 97 million units of electricity were used to produce 16.97 million cubic metres of desalinated water through the osmosis plant…”

Admittedly, technological advancements in our RO plants have bought the costs down slightly since then: but still, in March 2019 we were told that the WSC’s annual energy bill amounted to “between 16 – 18 million Euro per year”.

Meanwhile, by diverting so much rainwater directly into the sea, we have also cut off Malta’s aquifer from its only source of natural replenishment; yet we still rely on the same aquifer for around 40% of our daily water needs.

In a nutshell, then, Malta;s entire water management strategy seems to consist of:

a) throwing away millions of cubic metres of fresh water each year;

b) spending billions to recoup a tiny fraction of it in the most expensive way possible…

c) extracting groundwater which can never realistically be replenished, and;

d) doggedly resisting public calls for a National Water Policy, of the kind repeatedly made by Malta’s only hydrologist (Marco Cremona) for decades.

All this, I might add, on a tiny Mediterranean island whose population has practically doubled over the past 20 years; which boasts of attracting more than two million visitors a year… and which also faces imminent desertification, on account of global climate change.

Who, then, even needs God Almighty to be pissed off? Quite frankly, it is a shocking scandal that should really enrage us all.