Harvesting rainwater


At the time of writing the average rainfall in Malta from 1st September 2014 to date is recorded at 442.4 mm. The actual rainfall varies from a high of 529.6mm recorded at Selmun to a low of 373.7mm noted at Valletta. With still some months to go, it seems that precipitation in the Maltese islands during the current year will shortly exceed the average annual precipitation of 553.12mm, computed by Charles Galdies in his National Statistics Office publication entitled The Climate of Malta: statistics, trends and analysis 1951-2010. It will however be far short of 955.62mm, the maximum recorded precipitation in Malta which was recorded at Luqa Airport in 1951.

Since 1880, legislation in Malta has specifically provided for the construction of water cisterns in buildings, primarily residential ones. The dimensions of these water cisterns varied over time. Originally they were related to the floor area of the residential building. Recently, the required volume was reduced to be related to the footprint of the building.

These regulatory provisions are however more honoured in the breach, even when reduced. This is not a recent phenomenon. Regulatory control in Malta has been in decline since the 1960s building boom.

Instead of being collected in rainwater cisterns, in an ever increasing number of cases, rainwater is discharged directly onto our roads, or else into the public sewers. As a result, navigating some of our roads during or immediately after heavy rainfall is a dangerous exercise.

This is a case of water literally going down the drain. Large volumes of storm water, which can be utilised for various purposes, are being wasted. Much has been written about the potential use of harvested rainwater. Its use domestically can substantially reduce water bills.

It is also an issue of civil protection. Large quantities of rainwater in our streets, at times moving at an excessive velocity, are a danger to life and limb. Fortunately, it is very rare for people to lose their life in storms in Malta, but damage to property is a more frequent occurrence.

When rainwater is discharged into our overburdened public sewers, not only does the water overflow onto our streets, but it also increases the costs of sewage purification unnecessarily. These costs are recovered through our water bills. Hence, in the end, we all pay the costs of this abuse, irrespective of whether we are participants or not.

The major culprits are a substantial portion of the developers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. The government, directly, as well as through its agencies, has also been responsible for the development of housing estates without providing for rainwater harvesting.

In particular, it is common knowledge that in cases where basement or semi-basement garages are constructed, the duty to provide for rainwater harvesting is very rarely complied with. Since 1992, MEPA has been responsible for determining and ensuring the observance of the conditions of development permits, which in most cases, specify the required capacity of a rainwater cistern.

The Water Services Corporation (WSC) has during the last years, taken over the responsibility for the management of the public sewers from the former Drainage Department. This responsibility includes authorising owners of newly- constructed properties to connect the drains with the public sewer.

Is the WSC verifying that it is only the drains that are connected and, in particular, that rainwater pipes are not connected to the public sewer too? The obvious answer is provided by our streets on a rainy day. No one is bothering to check what is connected to the public sewer . This leads to the conclusion that, while the culprit for the present state of affairs is the building industry as, more often than not, it does not provide for rainwater storage in new developments, it is not the only one to blame. The authorities and government departments must take a substantial share of the blame for not shouldering their regulatory responsibilities. They could have stopped the abuse, but they did not.

A number of areas are practically out of bounds whenever heavy or continuous rainfall hits the Maltese islands. This is a source of danger and, in fact, the Civil Protection Department is heavily involved in assisting residents or motorists who are trapped as a result of flooding. The Birkirkara local council had, some years back installed a storm warning system to alert residents and passers-by that, “danger was on the way”! Public authorities in Malta, unfortunately, have developed the habit of dealing with the effects but continuously ignore the cause of flooding!

Monies made available by the EU have been used to fund a project for the construction of underground tunnels through which it is planned to collect rainwater from our streets and roads and to discharge most of the collected storm water into the sea.

The EU funds utilised in the construction of these tunnels have been utilised to squander a very precious resource. European taxpayers’ monies too have been flushed down the drain. They could have been put to a much better use if they had been applied to address the lack of adequate rainwater harvesting in our towns and villages.

We have been inundated with political speeches lauding sustainability and sustainable development. However, when push comes to shove, it is more than amply clear that this is just a case of some Members of Parliament showing off a newly-acquired vocabulary they have not yet understood. In 2015, Malta still lacks a sustainable water policy.

Published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 February 2015

3 comments on “Harvesting rainwater

  1. We have been inundated with political speeches lauding sustainability and sustainable development. However, when push comes to shove, it is more than amply clear that this is just a case of some Members of Parliament showing off a newly-acquired vocabulary they have not yet understood. In 2015, Malta still lacks a sustainable water policy.

    A very pertinent conclusion, though some would deem it “impertinent” rather than “pertinent”. We have just “hosted” a sustainable Mediterranean conference, yet another forum where our brilliant “sustainability” record is trumpeted. Water apart, there are also our environment sustainability polices, where the current MEPA chairman Vince Cassar holds the real power (to carry out “superior” orders) while Minister Leo Brincat waits for the day when such matters are actually transferred to his responsibility on the demise of MEPA. Exactly what “environment” is going to be left to “sustain” when the great day dawns is another matter. We have just seen the obituary of Ghadira (Minister for Tourism silent), and the first signs of what smells of ODZ “Agriturismo” development: the upgrading of 56 “farm” roads announced by TM, accompanied by a MEPA declaration that it was not consulted or involved. This whole business is becoming like an anti-dandruff advertisement for Head & Shoulders: kullhadd ifarfar.

  2. When, as the then Perit of the Bkara LC in 2003, it was proposed to have just an overflow tunnel drain for the very heavy storms, the proposal was shot down because it went against the EU principle of water harvesting. At the time 2 German consultants were engaged by ADT, as TM was known at the time. Since then, with Italian consultants, it seems that we can do without storm water harvesting.
    Another point to consider is that in the late Nineties fatalities due to storm water did occur at Bkara. People were swept away along the built up valleys from Balzan to Bkara. Bodies used to be retrieved days later in the debris of valley bottlenecks near the VAT department.
    The value of water can only be appreciated if it is not heavily subsidized.
    Also, schemes to incentivize water harvesting installations such as recharge bore holes of roof rain water will help to educate those that just do not care about sustainability of resources. Such recharge bore holes have been successfully installed already in some Government schools as part of an EU funded scheme.

  3. The problem with ‘recharge boreholes’ is that although they can migitate some of discharge by diverting it to the ground, they are highly dependent on very local geology and may be successful in 1 location, and a failure 2m away.
    Also, when recharging the acquifer, 50% of that is lost to the sea through sub-sea discharges anyway, and most of what is stored in the acquifer is taken up for free by bottlers, bowser owners and farmers, and sold back to consumers. It is a very ‘leaky’ investment!

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