An end to free water? Government plan proposes groundwater pricing policy

​As part of an EU-mandated management plan aimed at safeguarding Malta’s inland and underground water resources, a new licensing system is being considered

Water (File photo)
Water (File photo)

As part of an EU-mandated management plan aimed at safeguarding Malta’s inland and underground water resources, a new licensing system is being considered.

The system will apply to those who currently extract water from the ground without payment.

This plan being drafted by the Environment and Resources Authority  and the Energy & Water Agency, is a national requirement stemming from the EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD). The directive obliges member states to develop River Basin Management Plans (RBMP) focusing on a comprehensive approach to water protection, including groundwater, inland surface waters, transitional waters, and coastal waters.

The plan, along with the measures proposed to improve the situation, has been recently released for public consultation.

The measures included in the plan aim to establish a “licensing framework” for better regulation of groundwater extraction by users in the agricultural, commercial, and domestic sectors. This licensing framework will facilitate the implementation of “a water pricing policy” designed to safeguard water availability and user needs by encouraging efficient water use, thus improving the status of Malta’s aquifers.

Additionally, this new system will incentivize responsible operators while addressing inefficient water consumption practices.

Studies supporting the plan reveal that all of Malta’s underground water bodies, known as aquifers, either exhibit negative chemical conditions due to nitrate presence or are being depleted because of excessive abstraction.

The study indicates that Malta’s and Gozo’s mean sea level aquifers, which are freshwater lenses floating atop seawater, are losing more water due to extraction than they gain from rainfall, classifying them as having poor quantitative status.

Putting an End to the Free-for-All Situation

Statistics presented in parliament reveal that the equivalent of 108 million two-litre bottles of water were extracted for free from the ground and sold as water or carbonated soft drinks by beverage producers between 2016 and 2021. Another parliamentary question disclosed that construction companies extracted the equivalent of 200 million bottles of water between 2014 and 2021.

Malta currently has 8,058 registered boreholes, with roughly half of them registered with the authorities in 1997 and the rest under a different registration scheme introduced in 2008. Subsequently, a metering system was implemented to measure groundwater abstraction. Shallow wells (spieri) extracting water from perched aquifer systems were not included.

Official figures from 2019 show that the commercial sector, including water bottling companies and bowsers, now accounts for one-fifth of the metered abstractions, while agriculture accounts for the remaining four-fifths. In the same year, four boreholes extracted over 60,000 cubic meters of water, up from three in 2018. Three of these boreholes are used for agricultural purposes, while one serves commercial interests.

Considering resource and environmental costs in pricing

One of the measures contemplated in the plan, which could impact water pricing in Malta, is the development of a study focused on assessing the environmental and resource costs and benefits associated with water use.

This study aims to provide the necessary information to guide the future application of Article 9 of the Water Framework Directive. Article 9 requires Member States to consider the principle of recovering the costs of water services, including environmental and resource costs. Currently, the resource cost of extracting groundwater, which accounts for a third of the drinking water supply, is not factored into water pricing. This study will serve as a foundation for an equitable water pricing policy that takes into account the environmental, economic, and social costs and benefits associated with various water usage activities.

Furthermore, another measure under consideration in the plan is reducing the Water Services Corporation’s reliance on groundwater by increasing the use of desalinated water. According to the plan, expanded desalination plant capacity will allow for a higher proportion of desalinated water in the municipal water supply, enhancing drinking water quality and ensuring greater compliance with the Drinking Water Directive’s indicator parameters.

This measure will also lead to a reduction in the volume of groundwater extracted by the WSC. Given that desalination plants consume significant energy, this measure will be accompanied by infrastructure upgrades aimed at improving energy efficiency.

Recharging the Pwales aquifer

Another measure outlined in the plan involves injecting clean water into the Pwales aquifer system, located in the northern region of the island of Malta. Studies indicate that the Pwales Valley groundwater system currently has high concentrations of nitrate and chloride due to intense agricultural activity, leading to the overexploitation of the aquifer system. Injecting high-quality recharge water into the water table will not only increase the available groundwater but also dilute and flush out contaminants from the groundwater body.