Despite decrease in Maltese farmers, more groundwater is being extracted

The policy makes it clear that the extraction of groundwater by farmers is no longer 'tenable' but falls short of any pricing mechanism penalising groundwater extraction

While acknowledging that the Maltese authorities “never issued permits for groundwater abstraction and all drilling was done illegally”, the policy does not recommend a way forward with regards to the legal status of groundwater extraction
While acknowledging that the Maltese authorities “never issued permits for groundwater abstraction and all drilling was done illegally”, the policy does not recommend a way forward with regards to the legal status of groundwater extraction

The new National Agriculture Policy issued for public consultation earlier this month has identified a paradox of increased groundwater extraction despite a decrease in active farmers: an indication that this water is being used for purposes unrelated to agriculture.

The policy makes it clear that the extraction of groundwater by farmers is no longer “tenable” but falls short of any pricing mechanism penalising groundwater extraction.

After describing the reliance on groundwater extraction as “not tenable” the policy recommends that “agriculture should start shifting on more efficient groundwater use and the utilisation of alternative water sources”.

Curiously the policy document notes that the decrease in active farmers is not resulting in a decrease in the amount of water utilised for farming

“A reason for this could be that water is being utilised for recreational farming and other purposes that go beyond the production of food”.

The new policy document recommends that “monitoring” on the quantities of groundwater extracted “in order to flag irregular patterns of water abstraction that can be compared with the farmer status and the agricultural status of the land holding”.

An issue paper issued in preparation of the new policy in 2016 has spelled out that “government policy does not foresee the introduction of volumetric charges for groundwater abstracted from agricultural boreholes.”

But attempts to monitor groundwater extraction are still hindered by a lack of data.

The policy refers to “a staggering 67,735 cubic metres which was being extracted from one borehole”, reported in the WSC’s survey

“A major limitation for decision-making in this delicate issue is the lack of data.”

This is “hampering the implementation of abstraction control mechanisms and measures to reduce water pollution.”

Moreover, the metering process on registered agricultural boreholes started in 2011 and is still “ongoing”.

In fact the only solid source of data on abstraction remains a sample from 460 metered boreholes carried out by the Water Services Corporation in 2015.

The policy refers to “a staggering 67,735 cubic metres which were being extracted from one borehole”, reported in the WSC’s survey.

“This implies that groundwater extracted from this particular borehole exceeds the total amount abstracted from 231 boreholes extracting less than 1,000 cubic metres”, the policy states.

While acknowledging that the Maltese authorities “never issued permits for groundwater abstraction and all drilling was done illegally”, the policy does not recommend a way forward with regards to the legal status of groundwater extraction, noting that “there are as yet no formal abstraction rights in place and the only entity that can extract groundwater is the Water Services Corporation”.

Moreover farmers “still perceive this resource as an access to an unlimited amount of water” and are only driven to save on water extraction “by necessity and resource degradation”. However, water metering could make farmers more conscious that groundwater is not an infinite resource

New water still perceived as inferior

Moreover, while recommending a shift from groundwater extraction to new water derived from treated sewage, the policy document acknowledges that “treated sewage water is still perceived to be of inferior quality to borehole water.”

This perception “is still evident in the consumer discourse at farmers’ market and fresh vegetable retail points”. The policy recommends an information campaign and demonstration projects aimed at reversing this negative public perception.

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