The risk of failure stares us in the face

The United Nations Environment Programme is one of the success stories of the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Through its Mediterranean Action Programme, UNEP successfully brought together the states bordering the Mediterranean. In 1976, they signed the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution.

Malta signed the convention and a number of protocols, among which a 1980 protocol against pollution from land-based sources and activities, known as the LBS Protocol. One of the commitments that Malta entered into in the 1980s was to ensure that sewage should be treated before being discharged into the sea.

Malta was not in a position to honour its LBS Protocol commitments as the finance required to carry out the infrastructural development was not available. It was only as a result of EU accession that such funds were made available for the Xgħajra and the Gozo plants. (Funds through the Italian protocol were used to construct the Mellieħa plant.) This has come about because, in 1991, the EU adopted its Urban Wastewater Directive, which Malta had to implement on EU accession.

Notwithstanding the availability of EU finance, it was only in 2011, when the third sewage purification plant at Ta’ Barkat Xgħajra was commissioned, that Malta finally came in line with the EU Urban Wastewater Directive. This is clearly evidenced by the latest positive results on the quality of bathing waters along Malta’s coast. The waters off Wied Għammieq/Xgħajra, site of the sewage outfall for over 75 per cent of Malta’s sewage, have registered the most notable quality improvement.

While recognising that Malta has honoured long-standing commitments, it is unfortunate that the long wait was not utilised to identify possible uses of recycled sewage on the basis of which the available EU finance would have yielded long-term benefits. Lessons learnt from the Sant’Antnin sewage purification plant at Marsascala seem to have been ignored.

The sewage purification plants have been designed as an end-of-pipe solution. Situated at the point of discharge into the sea, the whole infrastructure is based on the wrong assumption that sewage is waste. Its potential as a resource was ignored at the drawing board. In fact, I remember quite clearly the statement issued by the Water Services Corporation in the summer of 2008 in reply to prodding by Alternattiva Demokratika. WSC had then derided AD and stated that the treated sewage effluent had no economic value.

Since then we have witnessed a policy metamorphosis. Water policy has slowly changed to accept the obvious and unavoidable fact that sewage is a resource that should be fully utilised. During the inauguration ceremony of the sewage purification plant at Il-Qammiegħ Mellieħa, Minister Austin Gatt had indicated that the possible use of recycled sewage would be studied.

The decision to study the matter had been taken when the design of the infrastructure was long determined. At that point, provision for the transfer of the recycled sewage from the point of treatment to the point of potential use was not factored in. Substantial additional expenditure would be required for this purpose. This is a clear case of gross mismanagement of public funds, including EU funds.

It has been recently announced that a pilot project is in hand to examine the impacts of recharging the aquifer with treated sewage effluent. This pilot project was listed in the First Water Catchment Management Plan for the Maltese Islands as one of three measures submitted to the EU in 2011 in line with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive. The other two measures are the efficient use of water in the domestic sector and using treated sewage effluent as a source of second class water.

AD agrees that a successful pilot project on recharging the aquifer could lead to a long-term sustainable solution of the management of water resources in Malta. This is, however, dependent on the nature of the liquid waste discharged into the public sewer. I am informed that tests which have been going on for some time at the WSC pilot plant at Bulebel industrial estate have revealed specific chemicals that are being discharged into the public sewer and which are proving difficult to remove from the treated sewage effluent.

The successful use of treated sewage effluent for a multitude of uses, including recharging the aquifer, is ultimately dependent on a tough enforcement policy ensuring that only permissible liquid waste is discharged into the public sewers. Recharging the aquifer with treated sewage effluent while technically possible is very risky. On the basis of past performance, enforcement is an aspect where the risk of failure stares us in the face!

The technical possibilities to address the water problem are available. What’s lacking is the capability of the authorities to enforce the law. I look forward to the time when they will develop their teeth and muscles. Only then will the risk be manageable.

 

Published in The Times of Malta, June 16, 2012 : Risk of failure staring at us

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Living on Ecological Credit

published

Saturday July23, 2011

An informal meeting of EU ministers of the environment held in Poland earlier this month reminded us that we are living on ecological credit. Our balance sheet with nature is in the red. It is healthy that EU politicians have recognised this fact.

Environmentalists have been campaigning for ages that the world is living beyond its means. International NGO WWF, for example, publishes information relative to ecological footprint analysis. From the information available, Malta’s ecological footprint is 3.9 hectares per person. This can be compared to an EU average of 4.9 hectares per person (ranging from a minimum of 3.6 for Poland and Slovakia to a maximum of 7.0 for Sweden and Finland) and a world average of 2.2 hectares per person.

This adds up to a total impact for Malta of about 50 times the area of the Maltese islands. A clear indication of the extent of Malta’s reliance on ecological credit.

Malta’s environmental impacts are accentuated due to the islands’ high population density.

Malta’s small size is in some respects an advantage but this advantage has been generally ignored throughout the years. The reform of public transport, currently in hand, could someday put the issue of size to good use by developing an efficient system of communication. This reform, however, has to be properly managed. Preliminary indications point to a completely different direction. I do not exclude the possibility of the achievement of positive results even if, so far, I am disappointed.

The results the Greens hope to be achieved from the public transport reform would be the increased use of public transport and, consequently, a reduction in the number of cars on the road. This will come about if bus routes are more commuter-friendly. A reduction of cars on the road will lead to less emissions and a reduction of transport-generated noise. It would also cut a household’s expenditure through the reduction of fuel costs.

Water management in Malta also contributes considerably to the island’s ecological deficit.

The commissioning of the Ta’ Barkat sewage purification plant means that Malta is now in line with the provisions of the EU Urban Wastewater Directive. But the actual design of the sewage purification infrastructure means that by discharging the purified water into the sea an opportunity of reducing the pressure on ground water and the production of reverse osmosis-produced water has been lost. The purified water could easily be used as second-class water or it could be polished for other uses. When the Mellieħa sewage purification plant was inaugurated it was announced that studies into the possible uses of the purified water were to be carried out. These studies should have been undertaken before the sewage purification infrastructure was designed as they could have led to a differently designed infrastructure. The system as designed means that any eventual use of the purified water will require its transport from the purification plants to the point of use. A properly designed system could have reduced these expenses substantially by producing the purified water along the route of the public sewers and close to the point of use.

Public (and EU) funds have been wrongly used. Water planners have not carried out their duty towards the community they serve through lack of foresight and by not having an inkling of sustainability issues.

It also means that those who advised the head of state to inform the current Parliament’s inaugural session in May 2008 that “the government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development” were not aware what that statement signifies. Repeatedly, the government, led by Lawrence Gonzi, falls short of addressing adequately environmental impacts, as a result pushing these islands further down the road of dependence on ecological credit.

The government could have opted for a fresh start in May 2008 by implementing the National Sustainable Development Strategy, approved by Cabinet some months prior to the 2008 election. Instead, I am reliably informed that the National Commission for Sustainable Development has not met a single time during the past 42 months. As a consequence, the strategy has been practically shelved and discarded.

I cannot and will not say that there have not been any environmental initiatives. While various initiatives have been undertaken, some only address impacts partially. Others have been embarked upon half-heartedly. It is also clear to all that government environmental action does not form part of a holistic vision. It rather resembles the linking up of loose pieces of unrelated jigsaw puzzle bits.

This contrasts sharply with the public’s awareness and expectations. The public is one step ahead awaiting its representatives to act in a responsible manner in accordance with their much-publicised statements.

Excessive ecological credit will inevitably lead to ecological bankruptcy. No EU or IMF will bail us out. It’s better to take our environmental responsibilities seriously before it is too late.

World Environment Day: “Government’s environment policy is beyond repair” : AD

World Environment Day: “Government’s environment policy is beyond repair” AD  

On occasion of  world environment day, Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party said that one should reflect on what has been carried out, what has been omitted and on what was just done for the sake of it in terms of environmental policy. Whilst the Environment was projected to be one of the foundations for political action of GonziPN it is now clear to everyone that it is cracked and beyond repair.  

Carmel Cacopardo, AD spokesperson for Sustainable Development and Local Government, said that “environment responsibilities for GonziPN is like a political football with responsibilities moving on from one Minister to another. Environmental responsibilities are fragmented in various Ministries increasing the difficulty for implementation of policy.   

Focusing on the water situation one still observes the large quantities of water in our streets which are channelled towards the sea almost every time it rains. This happens notwithstanding laws which have been on the statute book for over 130 years which require water harvesting measures in every building. MEPA still issues compliance certificates relative to buildings which are not provided with a rainwater well however it shifts the blame onto MRA.

This week the Prime Minister inaugurated the sewage purification plant at Ta’ Barkat limits of  Xgħajra. It was a good step but it was only done in order to fulfil EU obligations and not out of an environmental conviction. Substantial financial resources were applied with the resulting purified waters being dumped directly into the sea as to date the government is still considering this water as having no economic value.”

Water has been mismanaged throughout the years and unfortunately the current government does not indicate any change of that direction.

Michael Briguglio, AD Chairperson, said that “AD therefore wishes to focus on this matter of concern on the 2011 World Environment Day. In line with the vision of sustainable development and ecological modernisation, we believe that the importance of water should be seen through the combination of environmental, social and economic dimensions.”

Jum Dinji ta’ l-ambjent: “Il-politika ambjentali tal-Gvern hi mfarrka” AD  

Fl-okkazzjoni tal-jum dinji ghall-ambjent, Alternattiva Demokratika qalet li dan il-jum għandu jservi ghal riflessjoni fuq dak li sar,  dak li kellu jsir u ma sarx, jew inkella sar biex wieħed jgħid li taparsi sar. Meta wieħed iżomm f’moħħu li l-ambjent suppost li hu wiehħed mit-tliet pilastri ta’ GonziPN u jagħti ħarsa ftit lura biex jara kif dan il-pilastu ħadem, isib li mhux talli kien hemm falliment sħiħ f’dan il-qasam, imma l-pilalstru ta’ GonziPN ixxaqqaq u qed jitfarrak ftit ftit.

Carmel Cacopardo, Kelliemi ta’ l-AD għall-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli u Gvern Lokali, qal li “l-ambjent għall-GonziPN sar qisu ballun politiku: ir-responsabbilta’ għalih tgħaddi minn Ministru għal għand ieħor. Illum ir-responsabiltajiet ambjentali huma  mifruxa bejn ħafna Ministeri b’mod li tiżdied id-diffikulta biex din titwettaq.

Nieħdu is-sitwazzjoni tal-ilma. Volumi kbar ta’ ilma għadhom isibu ruħhom fit-triqat u jintremew fil-baħar wara kull ħalba xita. Dan minkejja liġijiet tal-pajjiż li ilhom magħna il-fuq minn 130 sena li jgħidu li kull binja irid ikollha bir biex fih jinħażen l-ilma tax-xita. Minkejja dan il-MEPA xorta għada toħroġ compliance certificate lil dawk li meta jibnu ma jkollhomx dan il-bir! Il-MEPA twaħħal fl-MRA.

Din il-gimgħa rajna l-ftuħ uffiċjali mill-Prim Ministru tal-impjant tat-tisfija tad-drenaġġ f’Ta’ Barkat limiti tax-Xgħajra.  Ħaġa tajba, għalkemm din saret biss minħabba l-obbligi tal-UE u mhux minħabba xi konvinzjoni. Ammont sostanzjali ta’ riżorsi finanzjarji ġew użati biex filwaqt li d-drenaġġ jissaffa l-ilma msoffi jintefa’ l-baħar, għax skond il-Gvern dan l-ilma m’għandux valur ekonomiku.

Tul is-snin l-ilma gie użat hażin u ma jidhirx li dan il-Gvern fi ħsiebu jibdel id-direzzjoni.

Michael Briguglio, Chairperson ta’ AD, qal li “għalhekk, Alternattiva Demokratika tħoss li għandha tiffoka fuq l-importanza ta’ l-ilma fl-okkazjoni ta’ Jum L-Ambjent 2011. Permezz tal-viżjoni favur żvilupp sostenibbli u modernizazzjoni ekologika, AD temmen li l-importanza ta’ l-ilma għandha titqies permezz tad-dimensjonijiet ambjentali, soċjali u ekonomiċi”.

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