Water is too precious, and too scarce, to be ‘free’

The worst thing we could possibly do, in the present circumstances, is to keep postponing the problem indefinitely, and simply pass the buck on to future generations

Information recently tabled in Parliament has gone some way towards proving a point that this newspaper has been making for the past two decades: i.e., that unless something is done about uncontrolled extraction from the water-table, Malta will end up facing a serious water crisis.

According to this new data, the amount of groundwater extracted by just one commercial sector – the production of concrete – has shot up from 4 million litres in 2014, to 95 million litres in 2019.  Between 2014 and 2021, a staggering 403 million litres were extracted, for free.

Statistics provided to MaltaToday by the Energy and Water Agency had already show that extraction from 244 commercial, non-agricultural boreholes amounted to 833 million litres. In 2019.  This means that the commercial sector - which includes water bottling companies, bowsers and concrete plants - accounts for one-fifth of all metered extraction.

Moreover, in 2019 more than 60 million litres were extracted from one single commercial borehole. And in 2010, a MaltaToday probe had revealed that Coca-Cola, alone, had extracted 51 million litres for its bottling plants. These figures do not even take into account illegal boreholes, and are limited only to Malta’s 3,119 metered ones.

Clearly, this is an irresponsible use of Malta most precious, and scarcest resource. Over-extraction not only depletes the water-table, but also contributes to increased salinity inside the aquifer: a problem that is set to become more acute with climate change, which contributes to sea level rises which will also impact the salinity of groundwater.

Unfortunately, however, a problem that has been flagged for decades, has also been largely buried under the carpet.  As often happens, governments seem to be more concerned with accommodating private interests and lobbies, than with protecting the common good.

The most significant step taken so far was to stop the drilling of any new boreholes following the 2008 registration exercise; and the metering of existing boreholes, which started in 2009 and was completed by 2014.

Unfortunately, however, this important step was not followed by the introduction of a pricing mechanism: allowing the use of this supply at no charge.

What the current administration did instead, was decrease the amount of ground water extracted by the Water Services Corporation: from over 50% to 40% of the water supply. This may well have reduced pressure on groundwater sources; but it has also made the country more reliant on Reverse-Osmosis water, which is far more energy intensive. And even this was unaccompanied by any measures to induce more responsibility in the private sector.

But while this reluctance to charge for groundwater extraction is understandable, with regard to agriculture: it is ludicrous that the commercial sector - including concrete plants, producers of table water, and bowsers which sell water to households – should aso be allowed to extract groundwater, for free.

As regards agricultural boreholes, the best solution is to facilitate farmers’ access to ’new water’: i.e. water derived from treated sewage, which is already being distributed to farmers for free. It is estimated that sewage plants have the potential of producing 7000 million litres of high-quality water, suitable for safe crop irrigation: which would potentially address up to 35% of agriculture’s current total water demand.

This means that agriculture would still rely on groundwater for 65% of its needs; but this only underscores the importance of protecting groundwater from further deterioration and depletion. Moreover, even the agricultural sector should be encouraged to be more responsible in its water-usage.  In this sense, incentives should be offered to farmers who adapt more efficient methods of irrigation.

Even public authorities should lead by example: by avoiding landscaping which requires constant watering, and opting for indigenous plants which are more suited to our arid and dry climate.

As regards industrial and commercial boreholes, the government should immediately introduce a tariff system to discourage extraction; and also to establish a level playing-field between businesses with no access to boreholes, and which rely on fully-priced tap water.

For this is not just a question of sustainability, but also of fairness and equity. It is simply unfair that while most mortals have to pay for their water supply, others can get it for free from the ground. Moreover, by giving a price-tag to groundwater, the government will also be sending out a clear message that this resource should be valued and not wasted.

One positive step undertaken by the Water Services Corporation is that of improving the taste of tap water, as this would offer the general population an alternative to bottled water, which is mostly derived from ground water.  Offering good-quality, affordable tap water literally hits two birds with one stone: reducing ground water extraction, and also the use of plastics to contain it. But this is only part of a long-term solution which necessarily requires both carrots and sticks.

The worst thing we could possibly do, in the present circumstances, is to keep postponing the problem indefinitely, and simply pass the buck on to future generations. The next budget therefore represents an ideal opportunity for the government to start addressing the problem, by charging for the extraction of groundwater by commercial interests.