‘Water, water everywhere…’ and not a drop was saved

… and when we evidently can’t even handle the sheer amount of precious rainwater being literally thrown down at us, from the Heavens above, for absolutely free

It is probably one of the most widely misquoted lines in the entire history of Western literature… but here goes anyway:

“Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink;

Water, water everywhere…”

Ah, but how does that line actually continue, in the original ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Iron Maide… I mean, Samuel Taylor Coleridge?

Funnily enough, I remember that very question being asked in some TV quiz show or other, way back when. And I also remember thinking: “Huh? That’s a dead giveaway, isn’t it? Doesn’t absolutely EVERYBODY know that it’s: ‘and not a drop to drink’…?”

Well… it turns out I was wrong on two counts there. For starters, the correct line is actually: ‘NOR ANY drop to drink’. (And what do know? Even Iron Maiden got it right …)

On top of that, however, there were some other people in the room, at the time: including a certain relative whom some of you may remember from your University years. And, well, let’s just say that my father would have easily won the ‘million-dollar’ prize for that particular question; while his son would have gone and made a spectacular fool of himself, right there on live TV (and would probably still be kicking himself for it now, all these years later)…

In any case, however: even when misquoted, the fundamental irony doesn’t really change much. There the Ancient Mariner was, dying of thirst on a becalmed vessel (‘as idle as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean’), surrounded on all sides by nothing but ‘water, water everywhere’, as far as the eye could see… and not a single drop of it could prove even remotely useful, for the purpose of quenching his own thirst.

Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, you could almost re-interpret the Ancient Mariner as a metaphor for the island of Malta (where, funnily enough, Coleridge himself had resided for a few years): surrounded, as it is, by ‘water, water everywhere’… and likewise (then as now) facing a permanent ‘crisis’, precisely due to ‘lack of water’...

In Malta’s case, however, the irony is considerably more… um…  ironic. For the crisis we are now experiencing seems to involve an overabundance (as opposed to any ‘lack’) of that all-important substance; and unlike the seawater that was so poignantly useless to the Ancient Mariner: it is rainwater that is now causing all our country’s water problems…

… when, by definition, rainwater is also precisely the kind of natural blessing that our country really needs the most, at this precise instant.

Even today – that is, before any of the other, more drastic climate change predictions have come true – hardly a year goes by without Maltese farmers bemoaning the annual lack of rainfall.

This same ‘curse’ is even invoked as a justification to extract more groundwater from the natural aquifer… little realizing, it seems, that the same aquifer can only ever be replenished by rainfall anyway – of which there will only ever be less and less, in future – so the more groundwater you extract today, the less (and saltier) you will be able to extract tomorrow…

Besides: was it not ‘rainfall’ that a certain former Archbishop used to lead all those prayer meetings to ask God for, after practically every dry spell? (Speaking of which: can we all at least agree to stop doing that now, please? It’s not like our prayers haven’t been ‘answered’, you know…)

And yet, when more rain suddenly falls on Malta in a few hours, than in an entire month – and when, as shall be seen, a single day’s rainfall corresponds to as much water as can be produced, through Reverse Osmosis, in an ENTIRE YEAR – somehow, we spectacularly fail to harvest even a single drop of it.

Instead, we all sit back and watch, when all that precious rainwater – an average of 99mm, recorded across the islands just yesterday – simply gushes past us on its way to the sea… dragging with it almost everything in its path, too: including cars, rubble walls, debris, and (occasionally) even people…

In other words: not only does this generous bounty of prayed-for, Heaven-sent rain fail to alleviate any of Malta’s inherent water problems, in any useful way … but it also causes more severe problems of its own, in the form of (increasingly violent, it seems) flash-floods.

And this, I need hardly add, only compounds the existing irony: for didn’t we (or, more precisely, the European taxpayer) only just spend €55 million on a much-vaunted ‘storm-water relief project’, specifically to ‘alleviate the flash-flooding problem in Malta’, once and for all…?

But I’ve already raised that issue in an earlier article: so for now, I’ll just let it get washed away with the rest of the junk…

Another question that intrigues me more, at this stage, is this: how much rainwater, exactly, did we all just witness being literally ‘flushed down the drain’? That average figure of ‘99mm’, for instance… what specific quantity of water does it really refer to, in cubic metres?

I shall have to admit the calculation proved beyond my own capabilities, so I asked hydrologist Dr Marco Cremona to work it out over the phone (which he did in a few minutes).  Given that the surface area of the Maltese islands is 316sq.km, and that 99mm fell (unevenly) over that surface in one day: the answer works out at roughly 29,300,000cb.m of water, all falling in the space of 24 hours.

And to put that seemingly shapeless, formless quantity into some kind of perspective: Malta’s current water needs are met through a combination of seawater desalination (Reverse Osmosis, which comes at a high energy cost); and extraction from the water-table. (Note: with the exception of the few reservoirs that do exist; and also, a law on ‘mandatory cisterns in new developments’ that never seems to actually get enforced… there is no serious national effort to harvest rainwater on any significant scale).

To be fair, the cost of Reverse Osmosis has been greatly reduced thanks to recent investments in new technology. In August 2018, Dr Manuel Sapiano, from the Energy and Water Agency, told the European Environment Agency that: “The energy needed to produce 1 cubic metre of freshwater from seawater will be reduced to 2.8 kilowatt hours. Ten years ago, that was close to 6 kilowatt hours.”

Now: I don’t know whether that target has indeed been reached, in the meantime… but let us, for argument’s sake, stick with ‘2.8 kilowatt hours’ as a rough estimate. And let us also add that - according to the most recent WSC statistics – Malta produced 31.2 million cubic metres of water through Reverse Osmosis in a single year (2015, to be precise).

Give or take a couple of million cubic metres: this means that the amount of rainwater that flooded our islands in just one day – 25 November, 2021 – was roughly the same as we produce annually, at a significant cost, through seawater desalination alone.

With, of course, a few crucial differences:

One: it must be pointed out that at least some of those 29.3 million cubic metres would have ended up in isolated cisterns or reservoirs; and there was probably a lot more that seeped into the water table the old-fashioned way: i.e., through absorption by soil.

But because so much of that permeable surface has been replaced, in recent years, with purpose-built ‘water run-off surfaces’ – roads, pavements, rooftops, patios, etc; all built on what were once fields – that quantity is already a far cry from what it was 20 (or even 10) years ago… and is only ever likely to decrease, over time;

Two: even with the latest, most advanced water-capture technology known to Mankind… it would still be unrealistic to harvest more than a small fraction of the total volume. (But the answer to this one is simple: if you don’t make any effort at all to harvest even a single drop…  you know, a priori, that the precise quantity of water you will end up with – in cubic metres – will be ‘zero’).

Three: regardless how much more efficient our RO plants have become, they still guzzle large quantities of electricity. Once again, it fell to Dr Cremona to do the actual math: but according to his estimates, it would have required roughly 82 million units of electricity – at the aforementioned 2.8 kilowatt hour rate – to produce the same amount of water (2.9 million cubic metres) that poured onto the Maltese islands last Thursday.

Exactly how much that would actually boil down to, in terms of ‘euros and centimes’… I have no idea; nor do I even think it’s particularly important. Whatever the cost, it still translates into a large chunk of Malta’s power-generation capability diverted entirely towards water-production – at a time when we all know that it is precisely ‘energy generation’ (through fossil fuels, too) that causes Climate Change to begin with…

… and when we evidently can’t even handle the sheer amount of precious rainwater being literally thrown down at us, from the Heavens above, for absolutely free.

Hmm. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about all those ‘prayer meetings’, you know. Maybe we do need to be wiped out by a single, cataclysmic Biblical deluge after all. Maybe it would be preferable to watching ourselves slowly drop dead of dehydration – just like the crew of the Ancient Mariner’s ‘ghost ship’ – while all along surrounded by “water, water everywhere”…