Small is beautiful in water policy

The press was recently briefed that the sewage treatment plant at Ta’ Barkat in Xgħajra will be commissioned shortly. Treating around 80 per cent of sewage produced in Malta it has the capacity to process 50,000 cubic metres of sewage daily. It is one of three plants, the other two being at Iċ-Ċumnija, limits of Mellieħa and at Ras il-Ħobż, in Gozo.

When the plant at Ta’ Barkat is in operation, Malta will at last be in line with the Urban Waste Water Directive of the EU. In addition, it will also be honouring another commitment entered into in terms of the protocol on pollution from land-based sources forming part of the United Nations Mediterranean Action Plan.

Without in any way belittling the efforts and expense entered into, it is to be stated that all three sewage treatment projects mentioned above ignore the potential reuse of the treated sewage effluent and discharge it directly into the sea.

The siting of the three plants is itself indicative of the fact the whole exercise has only been considered as an “end of pipe solution” to marine pollution through the discharge of untreated urban waste water. What was considered as a problem could instead have been viewed as an opportunity to redefine Malta’s approach to the management of water resources.

It was unfortunately very late in the day the government considered the possibility of redefining its approach.

Two years ago, on March 4, 2009, during the inauguration of the Mellieħa sewage treatment plant it was announced that studies would be carried out on the possible use of the treated sewage effluent for agricultural purposes as an alternative to its being discharged into the sea.

Studies should have been carried out before the design of the sewage treatment plants and not when two had already been completed and financial commitments on the third had been made.

Proper studies prior to the formulation of the design brief would have led to a different strategy and, consequently, to an alternative infrastructure.

If a decision on the reuse of treated sewage effluent is now arrived at, a distribution system will have to be introduced to transport the treated water from the sewage treatment plants to the point of use.

This cost could have been avoided by introducing small treatment plants directly at the points where the treated effluent needs to be used.

The above has been countered by a statement which emphasised there is no demand for treated sewage effluent by the agricultural community. This, I submit, is due to the fact that the agricultural community (and others) are today more than amply satisfying their requirements using boreholes to tap the water table.

The recent decision of the Malta Resources Authority to meter all boreholes (even if taken very late in the day) could be a first step to introduce some sense in the management of Malta’s groundwater. The next step would undoubtedly be the decision as to the quantum of payments to be made by whosoever extracts water from the water table.

Offering the use of treated sewage effluent as an alternative water source for agriculture purposes could be an acceptable alternative to extracting groundwater if the water so produced is adequately treated to acceptable standards.

The first use of treated sewage effluent for agricultural purposes in Malta was carried out in the mid-1980s as a result of the commissioning of the Sant’Antnin sewage purification plant at Wied iz-Ziju, limits of Marsascala. Although large tracts of agricultural land were as a result irrigated for the first time, there were complaints on the quality of the treated effluent produced and, subsequently, also on the quality of the agricultural products originating from the area. Technology has made substantial leaps since the 1980s and, in addition, I hope experience garnered throughout the years would be put to good use.

It is also pertinent to draw attention to research carried out by hydrologist Marco Cremona. This research project carried out at Għajn Tuffieħa in conjunction with the Island Hotels Group and the Department of Public Health developed a water recovery and reuse system for use in hotels and large scale commercial buildings.

In the early 1970s, Ralph Schumacher had advocated that “small is beautiful”. Applying Schumacher’s dictum to water policy in Malta could have led to considering a network of small sewage purification plants spread all over the islands to cater for the use of non-potable water. At the end of the day, I have no doubt the cost of such an approach would not have exceeded that of the three sewage purification plants. And we would have large quantities of second-class water available for use at no expense.

This is what the politics of sustainable development could deliver to governments which practise what they preach.

Published in The Times of Malta on March 5, 2011 

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