Free water no solution to water scarcity problems – hydrologist

The government will be offering the first 2,500 cubic metres of polished water derived from sewage treatment plants but hydrologist and water conservation campaigner Marco Cremona warns that this may further perpetuate the myth that water is an abundant and free good

Marco Cremona is skeptical
Marco Cremona is skeptical

Tariffs published in a legal notice issued in August related to the first block of 2,500m3 for all “consumers of highly polished reclaimed water for agricultural purposes shall be free of charge”.  For quantities greater than 2,500m3 but less than 5,000m3 farmers will be expected to pay 60 cents per cubic metre. The price will rise to 80 cents per cubic metre for greater quantities.

According to a ministry spokesperson for water and energy minister Joe Mizzi the main aim of the legal notice is to establish a pricing mechanism for “new water”  which is competitive to the operational costs of groundwater abstraction and “hence provides an economic incentive for its use instead of groundwater”.

The volume of 2,500m3 was set on the basis of “modelled crop water demands for semi-arid climatic conditions” according to coefficients established by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.  

But hydrologist Marco Cremona is skeptical that offering free water will reduce demand for ground water. 

“Giving water for free, at the taxpayer’s expense (as nothing is free), devalues the commodity, in this case, water… Producing and distributing this new source of water for free further consolidates the myth that water in Malta is abundant,” Cremona said.

While expressing agreement with the concept of recovering water from sewage for which he had campaigned 10 years ago when the government had decided to simply dump the new water into the sea, he is skeptical that this will reduce the over-pumping of groundwater.

Instead of reducing the consumption of ground water to rehabilitate the depleted aquifers, the distribution of free polished waster may well result in an increase of agricultural production. 

While expressing agreement with the concept of recovering water from sewage, he is skeptical that this will reduce the over-pumping of groundwater

The only way that this project can have a direct impact on the pumping of groundwater, according to Cremona is to oblige farmers and other beneficiaries to shut down their boreholes – especially given that they are being given good quality water for free. 

“Without this condition, we are merely dumping more water onto a perverse market in which one of the most precious resources on this dry country is essentially free.”

He also warns against the delusion that new water can substitute the aquifer.  

New water – even if given for free – will only be competitive with groundwater if a farmer’s borehole has become salty, and therefore unuseable, and

if a farmer’s fields are close to a new water distribution point and therefore he does not need to pay for a bowser to get the water to the field.

Moreover the maximum volume of new water that can be produced by the polishing plants – running uninterruptedly all year round, including winter when there is no demand – is equivalent to less than 25% of the quantity of groundwater being pumped by farmers today and probably less than 15% of the agricultural water demand in summer. 

Moreover production costs entailed in polishing water is three to five times the cost of extracting ground water.  

“Therefore there is no way new water can sustainably replace groundwater.”

According to Cremona, the cost of ground water for farmers presently amounts to the cost of electricity needed to pump groundwater from a borehole to the surface, which he calls “a pittance”. 

“This is especially damaging in a country which has one of the highest water scarcity indexes in the world”. 

Cremona also laments yet another multi-million euro project in the absence of a plan. 

“Malta, in 2017, does not yet have a National Water Plan, despite this being a promise in the 2013 PL electoral manifesto”. 

How new water system works

New water, i.e. water from Malta’s three sewage treatment plants, will be available for both agricultural and commercial uses. The delivery of new water from the dispensing points (located along the dedicated distribution network) to the point of use will be the responsibility of the user.

The treatment (polishing) process installed at the polishing plants adopts four barriers (treatment steps) capable of treating the wide array of pollutants present in wastewater, so as to enable the achievement of the quality levels which can ensure the safe use of the polished water product. Water Quality Tests undertaken by the Water Services Corporation in its own laboratories and also in foreign laboratories confirm the high quality of this polished water.  

These results have also enabled the Food Safety Commission to certify the water for use in the agricultural sector even for crops which are eaten raw.

The Water Services Corporation will be keeping separate accounts for its core water and sewerage services, and the new water project. But a ministry spokesperson confirmed that this will not introduce a legal requirement for the achievement of full financial cost recovery.  

Why it pays farmers to extract more ground water

According to a sample of 460 agricultural boreholes taken by the Sustainable Energy and Water Conservation Unit in 2015 on average 2,193 cubic metres of water were extracted by each agricultural borehole. 

But one agricultural borehole extracted 67,735 cubic metres of water in 2015, the equivalent of nearly 34 million two-litre bottles of mineral water in a single year. 

Another source extracted 34,000 cubic metres and three other sources between 18,000 cubic metres and 22,000 cubic metres. 

The study confirmed that it pays to extract large amounts of ground water. The cost of extracting 2,200 cubic metres of water is estimated to be €880 a year (40 cents per cubic metre). On the other hand the cost of extracting 200 cubic metres would be €678 (€3.39 per cubic metre). The cost includes energy consumption, the capital investment and maintenance costs. 

The study shows that most water is extracted in May, July and August. 

Currently ground water accounts for 86% of the water consumed by the agricultural sector. Only 9% comes from rainwater while 5% consists of treated water.