Water : A Long-Term View

An environmental policy which is worth the paper it is written on is one which aims at the long term. Merged into a national sustainable development strategy, environmental, economic and social policy is viewed in an holistic manner linking cause and effect.

The argument is often bandied around that in order to address environmental impacts it is necessary to ensure the generation of wealth through an enhanced economic performance which wealth could then be applied to environmental initiatives. I would suggest considering that environmental impacts are the direct consequence of economic activity, this leading to the conclusion that environmental impacts can be effectively addressed by re-designing the economic activity which has generated them.

Sometimes we tend to forget that man forms part of an ecological system. One particular consequence of this fact is that policies should be focused on making man’s impacts compatible with the carrying capacity of the ecological system.

This is easier said than done. It has been ages since man has abandoned most of his direct links with nature acting as if he was king of all that he could see. An environmental deficit has accumulated over the years as a result of short term policies which sought to satisfy the needs at a particular point in time without pausing to think on how those same needs would be satisfied in the long term. 

Consider for example the issue of water. Everyone is at this point aware that in Malta water is currently extracted from the water table at an unsustainable rate. The point of contention is whether we are still in time to remedy the situation.

Action taken by the Malta Resources Authority recently such that water extracted from boreholes is regulated is positive even though this action has been long overdue. The defining moment in protecting Malta’s underground water resources would be when these resources are reserved for agriculture and for distribution through the Water Services Corporation network. All other uses of underground water should be prohibited forthwith.

This signifies that better use should be made of other water sources. Too much rainwater is lost to the sea and to the public sewers. This is mostly the result of an incompetent public sector which has not applied existing policies and regulations. 

Water has been scarce in Malta since the advent of human settlement. It would suffice to say that when the Knights sought reasons to decline Charles V’s offer to base themselves in Malta the reports submitted by L’Isle Adam’s scouts placed lack of water as one of the main reasons. When Valletta was being constructed building regulations were drawn up emphasising the need to collect rainwater in cisterns constructed in the individual residences. This is still part of our legislation and since 1880 it has been applicable to all residences.

However notwithstanding the fact that legislation provides a solution, those entrusted with its implementation do not seem to be interested. Substantial amounts of property developed in the last 40 years is not provided with adequate storage for rainwater. In some cases the resulting rainwater flows straight onto our streets or else it is poured directly into our sewers. The results are various.

1. a substantial quantity of rainwater which could be put to good use is lost; this is then made up for by water extracted from the watertable or processed by reverse osmosis plants at a substantial ecological cost,

2. part of our sewer network is overloaded, overflowing onto roads and the sea during and immediately after heavy rainfall,

3. some of our roads are not fit to use during and immediately after heavy rainfall,

4. the overloaded sewers place an additional strain on the sewage purification plants thereby increasing their running costs which costs are then added to our water bills.  


Addressing the collection of rainwater and making good use of it would substantially reduce all of these impacts. This is easy to do, yet it has not been done as the competent authorities have shirked their duties for the past 40 years or so.

Whilst proper rainwater management would ease demand for groundwater this is not however the only possibility. I would point to action being taken by Singapore which like Malta has a lack of natural water resources. Singapore has reacted by producing a Four Taps policy which aims at being self-sufficient through the sustainable use of water resources. Within the Four Taps Policy Singapore also finds a use for purified sewage.

In Malta incompetence has produced a system designed specifically for discharging purified sewage into the sea. Certainly no long term planning here! Instead of designing a system to purify sewage close to where it could be used, incompetence has directed the substantial investments obtained from the EU to an end-of-pipe solution. This was not the result of some study as during the inauguration of the Mellieħa sewage purification plant it was stated by one of the big-heads that the matter had still to be studied. These misconceptions are traceable at least to the drawing board stage and result from the mistaken view that considers sewage as being of no use. The authorities are on record as stating that purified sewage has no economic value!

I have focused on water issues as just one example illustrating the lack of long term planning and the manner in which resources in Malta have been mismanaged throughout the years. There are countless of other examples encompassing energy, land, transport, agriculture, marine resources, industry, fisheries ………  Just name it.

A long term view of policy and its effects is long overdue. When this is done as a country we will be in a position to ensure that that environmental, economic and social issues are viewed in their proper perspective. We need to think in terms of a generation in order to bequeath to our children fewer problems than we have inherited. And its not just about water !

Published May 23, 2010 – The Independent on Sunday (Environment Supplement)

See also in this blog : The Cost of Incompetence