Get caught drinking from the tap: why better taste is the next step in Malta’s water revolution

Malta’s tap water often gets a bad rep for its quality of taste. But a project to improve its taste is behind a drive to make consumers choose this cheaper water instead of bottled water

Taste matters. And for many consumers of Malta’s tap water, the jury is certainly out on this one.

Malta has a reliable supply of tap water which meets stringent EU criteria on drinking water quality, yet many consumers still rely on either imported mineral water or on table water: water that is partly extracted from the groundwater table or the national water supply, which is further treated at an additional energy cost.  

It certainly comes at an additional environmental cost: the plastic packaging for one, or the unbilled extraction of the groundwater itself by private companies, further dispensed for free by supermarkets. Add to that, the cost of disposing and recycling plastic bottles. On the other hand, the equivalent of eight table water bottles costs just 2 cents in tap water.

But the chief executive of the Energy and Water Agency, Manuel Sapiano, says the Water Services Corporation will be addressing this important taste issue within the next three years.

“Our water is completely safe to drink, but it has a taste of chlorine which consumers do not like… one of the targets of the WSC is to make tap water drinkable by addressing the taste issue, all while attaining lower production costs.

“This will be through a project which will comprehensively ugrade the WSC’s water production and distribution facilities, enabling it to capitalise on the full blending capacity of desalinated water, improving the quality and taste of their product.”

Hydrologist and CEO of the Energy and Water Agency, Manuel Sapiano
Hydrologist and CEO of the Energy and Water Agency, Manuel Sapiano

Malta’s small size, dense demographics, semi-aridity and limited rainfall makes water scarcity an important challenge. Yet, despite its growing demand, the WSC’s production of water today is just two-thirds of what it was in 1994, thanks to a massive reduction in leakages.

Now, facing an imminent increase in water production, this demand could be partly offset by the greater use of water-efficient technologies at homes. “Even the market helps. A washing machine today consumes less water than one produced 10 years ago, and flushing tanks today are smaller too,” Sapiano says.

A three-year awareness campaign will be “hammering the message that water needs to be used efficiently” – the Maltese are already more frugal than other Europeans in the use of water, using an average of 120 litres a day, compared to the EU’s 144-litre average.
But unlike many other European countries, Malta cannot provide its water needs exclusively from natural resources.

“Malta only meets half its efficient water demand from natural resources like groundwater. Had we not invested in desalination in the 1980s and recently in new water, and had farmers not invested in water storage in reservoirs and drip irrigation… we would have a crisis. We wouldn’t have water in our taps. We don’t have a crisis simply because the country has invested and keeps investing in alternatives.”
Sapiano does not downplay the risks posed by increased salinity of groundwater sources, especially in poorly-constructed boreholes dug deep in the aquifer and closer to the underlying sea water level.

But he says that just 2.6 million cubic metres of water were abstracted in 2018 from some 3,118 metered boreholes.

A decade earlier, an NSO survey estimated that 28.2 million cb.m of water were being used to irrigate 2,830 hectares of agricultural land,  and that is about 10,000 cb.m per hectare.

“Today we have hard data from metered boreholes, showing that annual abstraction is a fraction of previous estimates,” Sapiano says, while hazarding that total abstraction is closer to 12 million cb.m.

The discrepancy is down to some 3,000 ‘spieri’ (wells) mostly located around Rabat and Mellieha, on the perched aquifer where water is trapped underground on a level of clay – these cannot be physically metered since these sources do not have fixed pumping equipment.
“Boreholes on the other hand can be metered, and are located on the mean sea level aquifers where groundwater literally floats on seawater and is abstracted using long fixed pipes going down the borehole. But practically the extent of irrigated land, where ‘spieri’ are used, is equivalent to that where metered boreholes are used. Therefore, when arriving at an initial demand estimate, the metered volume is doubled to take into account these regions,” Sapiano says.

Illegal boreholes

Malta still has a problem with illegal, unregistered boreholes, which also hamper a better estimate on groundwater consumption.
Sapiano’s agency plans to use satellite imagery from the EU’s earth observation programme Copernicus to actually monitor the area of land being cultivated. “We are looking at the feasibility of developing tools to remotely detect areas under cultivation to have a picture of actual cultivated land variability, to have reliable and unbiased information on seasonal land use and correlated water demands.”

Sapiano also says this data is beneficial to farmers, by encouraging a more efficient use of irrigation. “If someone is using 5,000 cb.m to irrigate a holding which has a modelled demand of 1,000 cb.m, this could be an indication of inefficiency in irrigation practices… which can be addressed through optimisation such as the use of drip irrigation.”

Sapiano dismisses the view that groundwater is a freebie for farmers. “They still have to pay for the installation of boreholes, electricity bills and maintenance costs. We estimate every cubic metre of water abstracted costs farmers an average of 20-25c – we’re talking of millions of euros in costs for the whole sector.”

Commercial companies are also extracting this groundwater. In 2018, the 245 commercially-registered boreholes extracted 527,294 cb.m, eight of which extracted over 30,000 cb.m annually, and two in excess of 60,000 cb.m. Bowser suppliers, often used for the filling of private pools, extract a significant portion of groundwater.

Doesn’t this suggest over-extraction by a few people at the detriment of society?

“At present we have limited power to restrict the extraction of water. Fines can be imposed in cases where boreholes are used for other purposes for which they were registered – such as agricultural boreholes used for commercial purposes.

“Not all cases are an indication of abuse. Inspections revealed cases where farmers with very large holdings rely on one groundwater source from which water is distributed, which is preferable than having them rely on multiple sources.  Commercial companies like laundries are also being encouraged to use new water, which can be safely used.”

Sapiano says companies involved in the production of soft drinks and mineral water are also being encouraged to increasingly shift to the public supply. “Up to a few years ago they were using around three litres of water to produce one litre of bottled table water; now they use just over one litre to produce the equivalent amount. Corporate social responsibility initiatives, like investment in water harvesting projects, are also being encouraged, as is the case of the Alteraqua project which has invested in the promotion of non-conventional water resources in Malta and Gozo.”

Weaning off the groundwater

Sapiano insists the solution lies in providing more competitive and sustainable alternatives. “Transporting water by bowsers is more costly in terms of energy use than using tap water, when one takes into account fuel costs. And the energy cost to produce desalinated water has been significantly reduced, making it an increasingly sustainable alternative.”

He notes that hotels, which previously relied on bowsers, today have an alternative to invest in having their own desalination plants, which provide water more cheaply and with a lower environmental footprint. And in agriculture, treated and polished sewage water has been providing farmers with new water – now transported directly through pipes – while providing a cheaper and environmentally friendly alternative to bowsers.

Indeed, Sapiano says the quality of water from bowser suppliers is not tested frequently enough despite the stringent controls in place for tap water, which meets all criteria for it to be drinking water.

“Under EU rules, all water for human consumption includes any water that comes in contact with human beings… my personal understanding is that it includes water used in pools. So, in my opinion, pools should be filled with water which is of drinking water quality.”