Energy minister: No plans for new borehole registration amnesty

There are currently 8,058 registered boreholes in Malta and Gozo, and the minister’s denial comes amid rumours that a new round of registrations may be in the offing.

Energy minister Joe Mizzi
Energy minister Joe Mizzi

Water and energy minister Joe Mizzi has confirmed that there are no plans for owners of unregistered or illegal boreholes to be granted an amnesty in exchange for registering with the authorities.

Boreholes are used to extract water from the ground and must be restored to more frequently as a result of Malta’s increasingly dry winters.

On a national level, the Water Services Corporation, through the country’s reverse osmosis plants, has adequate resources to supply water to the nation. But while water availability is not a major concern, a lack of rain and the reduction in catchment areas, has placed a greater strain on Malta’s natural water resources.

This is especially true of the agricultural sector, which cannot survive without the availability of cheap water.

There are currently 8,058 registered boreholes in Malta and Gozo, and the minister’s denial comes amid rumours that a new round of registrations may be in the offing.

Roughly half of the boreholes currently known to the authorities were registered in 1997.

However in 2008, the government had issued a legal notice granting an amnesty to those individuals who had not registered their boreholes by that date, leading to the registration of 2,537 new boreholes.

According to Malta Resources Authority data, Malta extracts upwards of 16 million cubic metres of water from registered boreholes each year, exceeding sustainable extraction levels.

It is estimated however, that the total number of operational boreholes, including those which have not been registered, is much larger, as is the quantity of water being extracted.

In comments to MaltaToday, Mizzi said there were plans for increased regulation of boreholes, insisting his ministry was in discussions with various entities to “discuss a way forward”.

“Obviously it’s not simply a matter of introducing controls without providing alternative solution,” he said. “We have already started to provide farmers with new water, that is one solution.”

The New Water project is expected to allow the country to treat around a third of the drainage that is currently dumped into the sea.

One facility in Mellieha is currently operational, while a second plant at Ras il-Hobz in Gozo is undergoing final testing. A third facility is planned at Ta’ Bakrat in Xaghjra.

As more of this water is used for agricultural purposes, Mizzi said, the amount of water extracted from boreholes would decrease.

Brian Restall, a university academic and water management activist, agreed that New Water, or Treated Sewage Effluent (TSE), could be useful in addressing excessive borehole extraction.

“Malta is leading the pack when it comes to TSE,” said Restall. “Other countries haven’t started this, they are only at the pilot project stage, and we should be proud of this.”

Despite this, he pointed out that demand for water was greater than Malta’s New Water generation capacity, as well as the fact that there are also challenges related to effective distribution of the water to farmers across the whole island.

Restall said a plan to regulate boreholes or phase out their use in areas where New Water was readily available, also needed to be formulated.

On Thursday, the ministry launched a €17 million integrated water management project which will seek to implement a managed aquifer recharge (MAR) project, among other initiatives.

The Energy and Water Agency (EWA), which falls under Mizzi’s ministry, and which will be leading the project said while there were different MAR techniques it was too early to state which one would be most effective.

“The choice of site and methodology will be determined following extensive modelling to be undertaken as part of the project,” said an agency spokesperson.

Asked whether it made sense for the water used to recharge Malta’s aquifers to be used directly, and to let the aquifer recharge itself, the spokesperson acknowledged that priority should be given to using the water, especially when considering subsurface storage was never “100% efficient”.

“In cases where demand modelling shows the presence of water resources which cannot be utilised at that point in time, managed aquifer recharge presents an opportunity,” he said, adding that treated water as well as rainwater runoff could be used to recharge aquifers.

Asked about the project, Restall expressed his satisfaction at the fact that the authorities “finally had some funds” to formulate a national water plan, which has been promised for quite some time.

Beyond the potential of attempting to recharge Malta’s aquifers, the project also seeks to raise awareness on the importance of water conservation, and to gather sufficient data on Malta’s water resources to produce a blueprint for the optimisation of water management.

The project will run for eight years, by which point it will seek to conduct water audits in 25% of Malta’s households, reach 25% of Malta’s school population every year, restore 230,000 sq.m of coastal wetlands and 15,000 sq.m of valley systems, as well as develop three sustainable urban drainage systems.