Water-scarce Malta needs recycling solution expert says, but food safety commission disagrees

Hydrologist Marco Cremona rebuts Food Safety Commission's opposition to invention that turns treated sewage into water for reuse

Marco Cremona
Marco Cremona

The Food Safety Commission has justified its decision not to grant a licence to hydrologist Marco Cremona’s innovative membrane-based process to turn hotels’ waste-water into potable water for re-use in showers, saying that no country in the European Union derives its drinking water from treated sewage.

The FSC has already said the main reason for turning down Cremona’s application centred on fears of unknown viruses that cannot yet be tested, which could be found in the treated water.

But the same precautionary principle is not applied to tap water, bottled water or the treated sewage that is used to irrigate crops.

To this the commission has said that research it conducted had shown that no country within the EU “treats wastewater into potable water for human consumption”.

But Cremona has rebutted that no other European country is faced by the water scarcity experienced in Malta.

“It is a well-documented fact there is no country in the EU that suffers from water scarcity and needs to recycle water as much as Malta,” he said, citing numerous installations of production of potable water from wastewater, world-wide.

These include the Direct Potable Re-use Plant in the Colorado River, opened in 2013, which can treat up to two million gallons of wastewater effluent per day to drinking water standards. A second American plant using the same process was opened in Wichita Falls, Texas in 2014, treating up to 10 million gallons of wastewater effluent per day for potable use. Even the city of Windhoek in Namibia has been delivering recycled water as tap water since 1968.

“When it comes to regulation, there are numerous guidelines and regulations developed in the US and elsewhere which the Maltese public health authorities could have referred to if they were at a loss with regards to the lack of regulations in the EU,” Cremona said.

“The EU Drinking Water Directive is the main potable water regulation in the EU, and it clearly states that, ‘irrespective of the source’, as long as the quality of the water meets the quality standard established by the Directive, it can be used for all domestic purposes, including drinking. I designed a process that meets this EU regulation.”

But the FSC insists that in its decision it had to respect the precautionary principle as mandated by the Food Safety Act.

“The assessment concluded that the risks outweigh the benefits especially when considering that this is a matter of public health and keeping in mind that there are currently several alternative sources of water supply in Malta,” the authority said.

Cremona insists that this last claim “adds insult to injury” and contrasts sharply with the very fact that the Water Services Corporation has just invested €25 million to produce ‘new water’ as an alternative source of water to Reverse Osmosis and groundwater extraction. “If there are currently several alternative sources of water, why is the WSC recovering water from sewage?”

Responsibility for water

In 2009, in its report “Plan for the Use of Treated Sewage Effluent for the Maltese Islands – A National Water Reclamation Project”, the WSC concluded that the most economical use of wastewater was to treat it to potable standards as an alternative to (expensive) seawater reverse osmosis.

It was then a conclusion viewed positively by the public health authority at the time. The WSC changed its position in a subsequent report later that year.   

The FSC also insists that its decision not to licence Cremona’s ‘HOTER’ invention – which prototype was deployed in a Maltese hotel – was determined by Cremona’s application to “use treated water for drinking purposes.”

The FSC said that having reviewed the information provided, as well as the position of the Council of Health – which had denied Cremona a licence in 2013 –it concluded that the proposal “was not acceptable”.

Cremona insists that his HOTER process for hotels is not intended to produce water for drinking specifically, but for general use in showers as an alternative to the WSC’s supply, which converts sea water into potable water through the expensive and energy-consuming Reverse Osmosis system.

Local regulations specify that any water used in showers and wash-hand basins must meet potable water standards.

“I fully agree with these regulations and never contested them… In fact my HOTER process is designed to meet these standards, as confirmed by independent certification by experts, including those specifically engaged by the Public Health”.

MaltaToday also asked the FSC whether it can guarantee that the water coming out of taps and in  bottled water is free from “pathogens and other chemicals that may have a harmful effect on human health” that are “still “unknown and untested by present safety standards”.

The FSC replied that it’s the Environmental Health Directorate within the Superintendence of Public Health that monitors the safety of bottled and tap water, but that suppliers bear the responsibility to ensure the water is free from pathogens and chemicals harmful to human.

New water, double standards

Cremona is resigned to seeing the rejection of a licence for his invention as a case of double standards.

The FSC approved the use of new water derived from sewage from three polishing plants operated by the Water Services Corporation. On completion, total production will be to the tune of seven billion litres a year. This water is already being distributed to farmers for free to irrigate their crops in the north of Malta.

The use of this water for irrigation has been approved subject to a number of conditions which include conformity to relevant legislation and an obligation to submit monitoring reports.

The FSC has made it clear that it does not support the use of new water for potable drinking water or for industrial use that is “directly or indirectly involved in food manufacture”.

But Cremona points out it is more likely for “unknown pathogens” to be present in the 12.5 billion litres of groundwater pumped every year by the WSC for the public water supply – which apart from rain water also contains water seeping from leaking sewers – than from a multi-barrier technological process designed and tested to remove all bacteria and viruses.

“One can say that the same risk also applies to water derived from licensed bowser potable water suppliers who source their water from boreholes that may be receiving contaminated water from leaking sewers across the country,” Cremona said.

“Even if, for argument’s sake, there are unknown pathogens and chemicals present in the water, the exposure of a guest in a hotel in Malta to these ‘unknown’ pathogens and other chemicals when showering and washing his/her teeth pales into comparison to the thousands of Maltese citizens who are continually exposed to such unknown contaminants and which may be present in their everyday water supplies and, in the case of crops irrigated by new water, in their food.”