How much of Malta has to burn to ashes, before we start taking climate change seriously?

So instead of ‘doing their bit’, by trying to be as hydrologically ‘self-sufficient’ as possible… these new developments only place further strain on the water-table 

Take a good look at these two photographs. Both were taken by the same person, standing at roughly the same spot, around four months apart.

The photographer is Patrick Tabone: an old friend of mine, but also (among many other things) an outspoken environmentalist, and contributor to the Today Public Policy Institute’s 2015 report on Malta’s water situation.

As for the location: it is (or should I say, was) Wied Ghomor… which Patrick describes as “an all-too-rare, semi-wild pocket of green close to the busy population centres of St Julian’s, Sliema, Swieqi, San Gwann – ALL GONE.” [my emphasis].

Indeed, I almost find it hard to believe that what we are looking at is one and the same place. The first photo – taken in March – is what Wied Ghomor looked like the last time I walked through that valley, a few years back. And then as now, it reminds me of Homer’s description of Calypso’s Isle in the Odyssey: “Even a god could not help being charmed by such a lovely spot…”

The second, on the other hand – taken in June – could almost be the official set-design for Peter Jackson’s ‘The Desolation of Smaug’. It’s not just that all those trees, all that lush vegetation, and all the wildlife Wied Ghomor was once home to, have been quite literally ‘burnt to ashes’… it’s almost as though the land itself has been scorched and withered to its very roots: leaving just a veritable ‘blasted heath’, upon which no vegetation will ever flourish again.

Naturally, I hope to be proven wrong on that last prediction. But when you pause to consider exactly WHY this idyllic beauty-spot suffered the fate that it suffered, over the past six months… call me a pessimist, but my hopes are not exactly what you’d call ‘high’.

For make no mistake: it was certainly no dragon that incinerated Wied Ghomor to a cinder. Nor, strictly speaking, was it even the result of any bush-fire, of the kind that is currently ravaging so much of the rest of Europe.

No, the actual cause turns out to be lot scarier than both ‘dragons’ (which, as mythology constantly reminds us, can always be ‘slain’) and ‘bush-fires’ (which, as Europe is currently finding out for itself, can at least be ‘fought’, in one way or another).

What we are looking at here, however, is not the result of any single cataclysm, or ‘extreme weather event’. In fact, it CAN’T be; for despite having produced some truly bizarre, unprecedented weather conditions – especially in mid-Spring (a season which hardly even materialised at all, this year) – 2022 has not, so far, delivered anything that can realistically be described as ‘extreme’.

So much so, that while great parts of Europe are quite literally ‘ablaze’, as we speak… here in Malta, we have been blessed by the mildest, coolest July temperatures in living memory. (Just yesterday, in fact, the morning headline was: ‘Malta spared by deadly European heatwave…’)

And yet, Wied Ghomor was evidently NOT spared the destruction we normally associate with ‘deadly heatwaves’. Even in the absence of searing heat, or record temperatures… it was still somehow reduced, over the past six months, to a wasteland of grey and white ash.

Not by fire, perhaps; but by another long-term consequence of Climate Change that scientists have been warning us about for decades (but which we still haven’t actually done anything about, as a nation, in all this time).

DROUGHT. (Or as Patrick Tabone put it last June: “So little rain since January, after an even drier season the year before. The brief downpour last week didn’t even make a dent, everything was bone dry again within a day…”)

And this is what I find so terrifying about the ‘desolation of Wied Ghomor’. For what we are really looking at, in that second photo, could almost be a snapshot of what the future holds in store, for every nook and cranny of these islands.

It is the result of gradually rising temperatures, and an alarming drop in annual rainfall… which can only mean that Malta’s aquifers are simply not being replenished, at a rate that can actually sustain life.

The process is called ‘desertification’, by the way. And unlike bush-fires – or even flash-floods (which, paradoxically, constitute Malta’s other climate-change ‘headache’, so to speak) there is precious little than can actually be done about it.

All the same, however: there is rather significant difference, between ‘precious little’… and nothing at all. Certainly, there is no available technology that can possibly make it ‘rain more’. But there are plenty of things we COULD be doing, to conserve as much as we possibly can of Malta’s meagre annual rainfall. And, I might add, there is even more that we SHOULDN’T be doing… if we actually plan to avert the worst, of a water-crisis that is now already in full-swing.

For instance: at the risk of repeating an earlier article, the Meteorological Office recorded an unprecedented 99mm of rainfall, on a single day in December 2021. That works out at almost 30 million cubic metres; which is roughly the same amount of fresh water that Malta produces annually – at exorbitant expense – through its Reverse Osmosis plants.

Yet not only did we fail to harvest even a single drop, of all this Heaven-sent water – even a single bowser-full of which, by the way, might have been enough to save Wied Ghomor - but we even ensured that as little of it as possible would actually end up replenishing the aquifer, through natural channels.

We did this, by tearing up a natural landscape that previously consisted of ‘mostly fields’ – that is to say, naturally-absorbent catchment-areas, which are designed to soak up as much water as they possibly can – and replacing them with newer, wider, and ever-more congested road-networks: you know, just to provide rainwater with the perfect surface, upon which to flow off, irretrievably, into the sea.

As a result, ALL of those 30 million cubic metres of rainwater ended up simply… wasted.  Until, of course, we eventually pump some of it back up again, and desalinate it through our RO plants: at an energy cost of roughly 2.8 kiloWatts per cubic metre…

Naturally, I’ll leave it you to work out how much it would cost, in euros and centimes, to actually produce 84 million kilowatts of electricity (needed, by the way, to generate exactly the same amount of water that we literally just THREW AWAY, only the day before…)

But even that constitutes only a small fraction of the actual cost, in terms of environmental damage. For to this day, we still rely almost exclusively on Reverse Osmosis to meet all Malta’s daily water-needs… a process that is:

a) already expensive enough as it is;

b) likely to become infinitely more costly, as international energy-prices continue to sky-rocket (fuelled by the war in Ukraine; the effects of COVID on global transportation…. etc., etc), and;

c) The result of an energy-generating strategy that still ultimately involves ‘burning fossil fuels’ – in the form of LNG -   and therefore, contributing (however slightly) to the very issue that is causing Climate Change in the first place.

Having said this: no amount of ‘harvested rainwater’ will ever be sufficient to actually replace RO, as our country’s main water-producing technology.  Nor is it even realistically possible to capture, and conserve, all but a tiny fraction of Malta’s (already limited) annual rainfall.

But I have to say it, all the same. Personally, I find it hard to accept that a country that is always so very eager to ‘excavate tunnels’ (even when there is no actual need for them), and ‘build underground carparks’, and so on… just cannot ever get round to excavating even a single, solitary ‘underground reservoir’… of the kind that hydrologists such as Marco Cremona (and reports such as that TPPI study I mentioned earlier) have been insisting on, for decades.

And that, I fear, is just the start. For there is also the small matter that our island’s natural aquifers are not only being slowly desiccated, through lack of annual rainfall; they are also being over-exploited through (often unregulated) bore-hole extraction… which has the ‘double-whammy’ effect, of both further depleting the water table; whilst also increasing the salinity of the little ground-water that remains.

That’s not to mention the fact that the Planning Authority has green-lighted dozens of mega-construction projects, in recent years: without ever insisting on (still less, enforcing) an existing policy to ensure that all new developments feature their own, in-built cisterns and reservoirs.

So instead of ‘doing their bit’, by trying to be as hydrologically ‘self-sufficient’ as possible… these new developments only place further strain on the water-table (among other things, by pumping up yet more groundwater from our already-depleted aquifers… to fill up their private swimming-pools.)

And I think I’ll stop there, for now, because… I mean, come on. You’d have to be ‘as blind as a bat’… no, wait, that’s not blind enough. You’d have to be ‘as blind as our government, to the implications of the global Climate Change crisis’, not to immediately realise that our entire approach to Malta’s water issues is hopelessly – but HOPELESSLY – unsustainable.

The only question that still remains is… well, the one in the headline, I suppose.