[WATCH] Ground water: Pay today to save for tomorrow

Protecting Malta's ground water is his job. Manuel Sapiano argues it is in the best interest of everyone that this resource is used judiciously. The CEO of the Energy and Water Agency sits down with JAMES DEBONO 

Ground water which is mostly contained in aquifers floating on sea water is a collective resource which has so far been abstracted free of charge by both farmers and commercial operators. 

The only two major steps taken by the State so far were two registration schemes carried out in 1997 and 2008, which gave the owners of around 8,000 boreholes and shallow wells (spieri) a once in a lifetime chance to regularise their position. Subsequently nearly 4,000 boreholes were metered but water from these sources was never billed. 

But a Green Paper issued for public consultation last week proposes an unprecedented tariff system based on the volumes abstracted from the water table. The new tariff will be used as a stick, but the Green Paper also includes incentives in the forms of quotas and rebates which can act as carrots, to help shift farmers and commercial operators to a more sustainable use of water sources. 

Manuel Sapiano, CEO of the Malta Water and Energy Agency, insists the best way forward is to convince farmers and commercial operators whose livelihood depends on abstracting ground water, that protecting this resource is also in their best interest. He argues that the goal of the Green Paper is not to stop ground water abstraction but to protect those who use this resource in an efficient manner. 

“We want to explain to those involved that it is in their own self-interest that ground water is used responsibly,” he tells me. 

The consequences of over abstraction are not immediately noticeable as it does not result in any changes in ground water levels, but Sapiano warns that over time this fresh water is becoming saltier and less suitable for irrigation. 

The following are excerpts from the interview which can be watched in full on maltatoday.com.mt and our platforms on Spotify and Facebook. 

The Green Paper proposes a tariff for domestic users who use their own boreholes to abstract ground water to use for domestic purposes and to water their garden lawns or fill their swimming pools. The tariff will be set at a higher level than the tariff applied by the Water Services Corporation for domestic consumers. Why? 

This is not just a matter of protecting the water table but also a public health issue. It is always recommendable to use the national water supply which is monitored and tested according to established parameters when this water comes in direct contact with your body… The safety risk is even greater especially when ground water from the water table is also used in showers…  

Will bowsers selling ground water to fill pools and water lawns become redundant? 

Bowsers fall under the category of commercial operators that will be expected to pay the tariff but will be eligible for incentives if they adopt sustainable practices… They can still operate in a sustainable way… for example, some bowsers already transport rainwater instead of ground water while others are used by farmers to transport water from one place to another. There can still be a place for them. But there are uses which are safe for the public in terms of public health and which are also environmentally sustainable and others which are not. So, what we are doing is driving this sector into a more sustainable direction. 

What about commercial operators like beverage companies who abstract ground water to sell it as mineral water in plastic bottles? 

One of the main bottlers has already shifted to tap water after finding that this makes greater economic sense since tap water quality is more stable. Data from metered boreholes shows that there are other commercial operators who abstract more ground water than beverage companies. What we are telling all commercial operators is that they can still use this resource in a sustainable way. If they do so they will benefit from rebates on the tariff paid. What we would like to see are more measures based on corporate social responsibility. For example, if a company which extracts ground water also invests in rainwater collection infrastructure as another leading beverage company is doing, they should be incentivised to do so… 

Farmers will still benefit from an allocation of a quota of  ‘free' water based on factors such as land area, the crops cultivated and farm size. But they will have to pay for any amount they use over and above thisquota. Will this measure encourage farmers to be less wasteful with regards to irrigation? 

There is no agriculture without water. Moreover, one should ask where does ground water come from? It mostly comes from rainwater which ends up on farms before seeping into the water table. If fields are built up, we will also lose the water absorbed into the ground. Moreover, data from metered boreholes shows that most farmers are using ground water in an efficient way... Many have also invested heavily in drip irrigation and rainwater collection. Still, it is a misconception that ground water comes for free, because there are still energy costs involved. We calculate that it costs a farmer between 25 cents and 40 cents per cubic metre. This means that the less ground water they abstract, the more money they save. 

Does the government intend to issue another registration scheme to regularise illegal boreholes in view of the new permitting system? 

The Green Paper does not propose a new registration exercise. The measures contemplated will only apply to existing registered boreholes. The only difference is that instead of simply registering the borehole infrastructure as they did, operators will also require an abstraction permit which will regulate the volume of water abstracted from their boreholes. In this way we will be in a better position to promote the efficient use of the resource... However, enforcement in this sector is not easy. We are talking of a 15cm diameter hole which is covered by a rock. The Green Paper proposes that anyone included in this register will have to exhibit a licence plate number. This will facilitate enforcement as whenever inspectors see anyone extracting ground water, they will also be able to check their licence plate and the corresponding permits. We are also exploring the use of satellite imagery to for example identify green patches in the summer months. 

The Maltese still shun tap water due to its taste thus making them more likely to drink water in plastic bottles often filled with purified ground water. Will this change?   

The taste problem results from the use of chlorine, a disinfectant used to prevent the growth of bacteria in the distribution system… The dosing with chlorine has already been reduced by around 30% in the past years… But people are under the misconception that the taste is related to the desalinisation process and some even resort to the use of home-based RO systems thinking that this would improve the taste even if this is not the case. In such cases one should be using a filtering system rather than an RO system. The ultimate aim of the WSC is to ensure that all localities have access to water of the same quality... The Agency gives free advice to consumers through its auditors on which filtering equipment is best to use at home and how to use water efficiently. We are not telling people not to wash but to use water efficiently by for example reducing the flow of water from their shower.