The island that turned itself into a desert

We are, in brief, doing our utmost to make this country as hot, parched and shade-less as it is possible to be. Just in time for the first material effects of global warming, too

Our approach to ‘water conservation’ has been roughly the same as our approach to trees
Our approach to ‘water conservation’ has been roughly the same as our approach to trees

Here is a small experiment you can all try at home. Ask a small child to draw a picture of a ‘desert island’. Or draw one yourself, if no small children are actually available for experimentation. If even that proves beyond your capabilities, simply type ‘cartoon desert island’ in your browser’s search field, and see what pops up.

In all but a few instances – such as, if the small child is also a Smart Alec who knows a thing or two about geography – the result will be roughly the same: a small shingle of sand arising from the sea, with one (at most, two) palm trees drooping in the fierce heat of the sun.

It may be just a stereotypical image derived from cartoons... which were in turn informed by ‘castaway narratives’ such as ‘Robinson Crusoe’, etc...  but already you can see the beginnings of a difference between this hypothetical ‘desert island’ of ours, and the one we are actually living on. 

On even the most arid and inhospitable cartoon version, there will be at least one tree to offer a little shade. And that’s already one more tree than you are likely to find when walking down your own street in Malta at noon. 

Even if you are lucky enough to live in a locality where such things as ‘trees’ still exist... well, you’d better enjoy their shade as much as you can while they are still around. If they are not uprooted altogether to make way for some development project or other... or, as was the case with the ‘landscaping’ of Castille Square in Valletta, for no reason at all... they will probably be whittled down to barren, branchless stumps by a process known locally as ‘pruning’. 

Either way, it is as though we are consciously and deliberately trying to banish as much natural shade as possible from our urban environment... which, in turn, is eating ever more deeply into a natural environment that was never over-supplied with trees to begin with.

The bottom line is that proportionally, that child’s drawing of ‘desert island’ will have more shade than all the Maltese islands put together.  Not because of any natural circumstances beyond our control... but because of a concerted and enthusiastic effort on our own part, to minimise any form of reprieve from the scorching summer heat. 

We are, in brief, doing our utmost to make this country as hot, parched and shade-less as it is possible to be. Just in time for the first material effects of global warming, too.

And that, I fear, is but the start. What really makes a ‘desert island’ is not a lack of trees (though it is indeed one of the consequences of desertification). It is a lack of water. To the best of my knowledge, this has always been an endemic problem in Malta. At the time of the Knights, for instance, there was a law that all properties in Valletta had to have their own well or cistern. And last year, the Bishop of Gozo led public prayers for rain, at the height of a drought that had local farmers panicking.

I mention these two random examples merely to illustrate that it is a well and widely known FACT that Malta faces (and has faced, throughout its history) the very real prospect of desertification. This is not something we’re only just beginning to realise today, in the 21st century. It is a reality we have had to live and contend with for centuries, if not millennia.

How is it, then, that we have learnt so little from the experience of our ancestors in this regard? Why is the usage of water not the most tightly regulated aspect of our everyday lives... as it so manifestly should be, on an island which doesn’t actually have a permanent supply of its own?

Incredibly, our approach to ‘water conservation’ has been roughly the same as our approach to trees. Not only do we fail to protect our existing (and very meagre) fresh-water reserves... but we actively and intentionally drain them to the utmost of our abilities; you know, just to make damn sure that future generations find their own homeland as arid and inhospitable as possible.

Consider the following excerpts from an article published in this newspaper last month: “Boreholes for non-agricultural purposes are being used to extract on average three times as much water than individual boreholes used for agricultural purposes [...] In total, commercial boreholes yielded a total of 424,000 cubic metres of water in 2016, which is the equivalent of 212 million large bottles of mineral water. [...] Apart from the energy and maintenance costs involved in extraction, the water comes at no charge for both farmers and commercial operators.”

‘Commercial boreholes’ could mean anything from the production of bottled mineral water, to water used by hotels and factories, to water sold to households from bowsers to fill up swimming pools, etc.  All of that, on top of water used for agricultural purposes, is pumped out of Malta’s water-table... for free. 

All this while, experts have been warning for years that over-extraction of groundwater will result in a gradual salination of the aquifer as a whole. So not only are we actively depleting an existing resource... but what we don’t extract of it is being slowly rendered unusable anyway. And in a country where we do not even harvest rainwater, the only real alternative to groundwater extraction is seawater desalination, which takes place at a number of reverse osmosis plants around the coast. It is an energy-expensive process, which already accounts for 58% of Malta’s fresh water needs. That percentage can only be expected to increase as the aquifer becomes unusable due to over-extraction. Water production will therefore cost the country more, and that cost can only be passed on to the consumer in terms of higher utility bills.

In other words, you and I will end up bearing the brunt of our national drive to deplete Malta’s water table... and not the people who are actually depleting it. Those will continue extracting their own groundwater for free... though the ‘energy and maintenance’ costs will obviously go up for them, too. 

Honestly, though: it doesn’t take a hydrology expert to realise that our current national water consumption habits will one day soon precipitate a major water crisis. So why are we doing nothing to avert this crisis while we still can?

Meanwhile, the above figures are limited only to commercial boreholes that are metered. We have no idea how much of our precious, limited groundwater is being pumped up illegally. Even within the regulated borehole sector, however, vital information is still being withheld from the general public. 

The Malta Resources Authority even refused to answer questions regarding how much is extracted specifically for the production of bottled mineral water... claiming that such information is ‘commercially sensitive’.

Isn’t it time the ‘Malta Resources Authority’ understood that its remit is actually to protect Malta’s limited resources... as opposed to the people who are exploiting those resources for their own gain? One other question I might have asked the MRA’s press office is... what are they actually doing to ensure the availability of fresh water for future generations, anyway? Is there even such a thing as a ‘water conservation policy’, on an island where the scarcity of such a vital resource has been known and felt for thousands of years?

But of course, we already know the answer. There isn’t anything even resembling a ‘National Water Policy’ in Malta in 2017. There was meant to be one, yes... in June 2015, then Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi said that his government would be launching a ‘national water management plan’ for the Maltese islands ‘within a year’. 

Well, that deadline expired over a year ago. And like a distant oasis in a cartoon desert, this vision of a ‘national water plan’ turned out to be a mirage.

Anyone care to guess why? What would a ‘national water management plan’ need to do, in practice, to effectively regulate usage of this most precious of our national resources? I reckon that, for starters, it would have to set limitations on the current ‘free-for-all’ situation regarding groundwater extraction. Farmers, factories, hotels, swimming-pool owners, etc., might actually have to start paying for a resource that, at present, they extract for themselves for free.  

We all know why that will never happen in the current political climate; and I need hardly add that the reason has less to do with ‘conserving water’, than with conserving an ill-gotten national electoral majority at all costs.

And now, with heatwave ‘Lucifer’ giving us a sneak preview of an almost certainly unavoidable future... it is only a matter of time before we all start wishing our country really did resemble that child’s drawing of a desert island. 

At least, maybe we’d get to enjoy a bit of natural shade, before inevitably dying of dehydration.

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