by Carmel Cacopardo
published Saturday, January 17, 2009
Walking or driving through some of our roads during or immediately after heavy rainfall is no easy task. If you are lucky you will “just” encounter large quantities of ankle-deep rainwater. It may, however, be worse if the rainwater is mixed with sewage.
This is happening so often that it is hardly news any more!
Three issues should be underlined. The first is rainwater literally going down the drain!
Secondly, it is an issue of civil protection: life and property are endangered.
Thirdly, it’s a case of an overloaded public sewer and, consequently, an unnecessary increase in the costs of sewage purification.
Local building regulations applicable since 1880 established the capacity of rainwater cisterns that are to be provided as an integral part of a dwelling. Unfortunately, a number of residential properties constructed over the last 45 years have not been provided with cisterns for rainwater storage.
The major culprits are a substantial portion of the developers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. In particular, in cases where basement or semi-basement garages are constructed, the duty to provide for rainwater storage is very rarely complied with. In those instances where a rainwater cistern has not been provided, rainwater is being disposed of either directly onto the street or else straight into the public sewer.
When disposed of onto the streets, rainwater is a contributor to flooding whereas when discharged down the drain it overloads the public sewer which, subsequently, overflows onto our streets.
As a result, this adds a health hazard to an already alarming situation.
Mepa has since 1992 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. Mepa shares this responsibility with the public health authorities.
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 dwellings to connect their house drains with the public sewer.
Is the WSC verifying that it is only the house drains that are connected and, in particular, that rainwater pipes are not connected to the public sewer too? The answer is provided by our streets on a rainy day. No one is bothering to check.
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 development, it is not the only one to blame. The authorities and government departments have a substantial share of the blame for not shouldering their responsibilities.
A number of areas are 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 ago installed a storm warning system to alert residents and passers by that “danger was on the way”!
Public authorities, unfortunately, have developed the habit of dealing with the effects but continuously ignore the cause of flooding!
Austin Gatt, as the minister responsible for the WSC, recently announced that the government will introduce a drainage tariff as of next year. He stressed that, in terms of the EU Water Framework Directive, the government has to recover costs related to the treatment of urban wastewater. Leaving aside for the time being the discharge of the treated wastewater into the sea (I have dealt with this elsewhere) it is clear that the cost of treating urban wastewater includes an expense which can easily be avoided if the public sewer is not overloaded with rainwater during the rainy season. All of us will thus be forced to pay the cost for the gross incompetence of the government through its authorities.
We have also been informed that part of the €855 million made available by the EU will be used to fund a project for the construction of underground tunnels through which it is planned to collect rainwater from our streets and roads. It is planned not only to store the rainwater underground but, possibly, also to make use of it in order recharge the depleted water table!
No one has yet explained how it is intended to deal with the contamination of rainwater by sewage prior to it being collected in the projected tunnels. But even if this is remedied, the EU funds will be effectively subsidising a number of developers who, once more, will shift their responsibilities and expenses onto the taxpayer. EU monies are taxpayers’ funds too!
This is the accumulated cost of incompetence!