After the flood… the irony

How is it possible that no serious thought is ever given to availing ourselves of a natural bonanza of water delivered directly to our door?

Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna.

There was something deeply ironic about the fact that a 'tomato festival' (of all things) had to be cancelled because of some of the worst weather we have seen in recent years.

Fgura's much-anticipated tomato-fest, scheduled for Sunday night, had already elicited harsh criticism: mostly on the grounds that the entire festival was deemed a 'waste of tomatoes' that could otherwise have been 'given to the poor'.

Without entering the merits of this argument (though it must be said that the tomatoes in question were either rotten or spoiling, and certainly not fit for human consumption), the entire sequence of events provides some remarkable insights into our national sense of priorities.

When news emerged that the organizers had decided to cancel on account of the weather, there were people who commented that the storm was God's way of showing us all his divine disapproval of such wanton prodigality.

Nor was this the only moment of religious absurdity to accompany the event. Within hours of the deluge, clips appeared on YouTube in which an African mystic by the name of Dr Owuor was heard 'prophesying', in August, a Biblical deluge which would shortly strike Malta as a form of punishment by God for "sexual immorality".

It seems to have escaped this particular mystic's notice that sudden rainstorms and flash-floods are a standard feature of the annual change of weather, and as such occur with predictable regularity every single autumn.

Similar floods were experienced last year, the year before, and the year before that. Far more rain fell in a single day in October 2010; while in September 2004, the floods were so bad that Malta even turned to the EU for storm-relief funding.

Back in October 1979, a similar storm had cost no fewer than four lives, and caused similar (if not worse) damage involving uprooted trees and collapsed buildings.

So... where all those storms a case of punishment by God for our 'sexual immorality'? And seeing as such floods occur so regularly, isn't it also a rather easy thing to predict?

Even without such patently ludicrous nonsense, there was a thundering irony (if you'll excuse the pun) in the sight of all that water gushing unstoppably down all Malta's roads and thoroughfares over the past two days.

While some people were evidently outraged by a perceived 'waste' of surplus tomatoes in Fgura, it seems no one is really very bothered about the much more distressing waste of untold quantities of precious water - a vital resource which (unlike tomatoes) will very soon become very scarce.

Yet the truth is that Malta simply cannot afford the luxury of throwing so much water away, without even attempting to harness any of it. Water production currently accounts for approximately 17% of our national energy generation - and given that there are visible and palpable problems with the country's electrical supply (not to mention with its cost), one can only seriously question how sustainable our national reliance on reverse osmosis is when projected into the future.

How is it possible that no serious thought is ever given to availing ourselves of a natural bonanza of water which is delivered directly to our door (sometimes, alas! right into our homes) for absolutely free? Why is there no government policy in this direction? And with the exception of a few individuals such as hydrologist Marco Cremona, why do so few people ever raise such an important issue in the public domain?

The answer can be summed in a simple concept - a lack of vision. Yet it was not always this way. Half a millennium ago, when the Knights first came to Malta, they immediately understood the importance of harvesting rainwater; in fact they passed legislation to ensure that all new buildings are constructed complete with their own wells.

Incredibly, this law is still in Malta's statute books 500 years later; though needless to add it is more often observed in the exception than in the rule.

Fast-forward to 2012 and... where is the national network of cisterns/reservoirs that was started by the Knights, and continued by the British? Evidently, it was abandoned by the Maltese; and the result is both a cursed nuisance every autumn, as well as a shocking and truly shameful waste of a vital resource that puts the loss of a few thousand kilos of rotten tomatoes into some kind of perspective.

Elsewhere, it seems we have made a concerted effort to maximize flooding and minimize the conservation of water: redesigning our streets to remove gutters; allowing buildings to be constructed along natural waterways; and worst of all, allowing run-off water from our rooftops to simply empty out into the streets, or directly into the drains where it will certainly overflow.

Faced with all this evidence of a country so oblivious to waste when it matters the most - and so intolerant of it when it is really inconsequential - one begins to almost sympathise with Dr Owou's predictions, and wonder if God really does intend wiping us off the face of the earth for our hard-headedness.

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