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 

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

What it takes to Green Cinderella

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published on Saturday March 20, 2010

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Malta’s environmental policy has to date been EU driven for the simple reason that the political establishment in Malta has resisted its development. Dumping environmental responsibilities with land use planning has, in my view, been an integral part of this strategy.

Notwithstanding its past performance, the government’s declaration that it will now embark on consultations leading to the formulation of an environmental policy, which is locally driven, is welcome news. Only time will tell whether this is another exercise in green-washing.

The government’s commitment to safeguard the environment is not to be gauged through its declarations but through its actions or lack of them. Its lack of environmental credentials has been manifested many times. The latest being by Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco who, when introducing the Environment and Development Planning Bill in Parliament, stated that the environment will “no longer be the Cinderella of development”.

This has not come about accidentally. It was a deliberate exercise as a result of which the expertise, which the former Department for the Environment was slowly accumulating, was wiped out. Those who plotted the merger needed to ensure that environmental decisions were subject to development considerations at all times.

Cabinet responsibility for the environment made its first appearance immediately after the 1972 Stockholm Human Environment Conference. In 1976, Malta had a Minister for Health and the Environment. His environmental remit focused on landfills. During his watch, the Luqa and Wied Fulija landfills were closed and a new landfill at Magħtab was opened!

The first real minister for the environment in Malta was Daniel Micallef. He was appointed in 1986 during Labour’s last months in government by then Prime Minster Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who was seeking to counterbalance the widespread corruption in the Lorry Sant-led Ministry of Works. This corruption was subsequently documented.

Between 1986 and 2002 much was achieved. It would suffice to state that when, in 2002, the Department for the Environment was disbanded it had more credibility and was much more effective than Mepa’s Environment Directorate is today.

A local company that bottles water and soft drinks was recently awarded the 2009 Environment Award for Industry by the Cleaner Technology Centre. The company had relocated to a new site, upgrading its facilities to function eco-efficiently. But it still makes use of substantial amounts of water extracted from the water table through boreholes and sells this as bottled water and soft drinks. Extraction is to the tune of 51 million litres annually. The director of the Cleaner Technology Centre, when prodded in other sections of the press, admitted that the award adjudicating board was not aware that the company extracts ground water through boreholes. Seen within the context of Malta’s depleted water table this award is environmentally blasphemous.

Some persons entrusted with environmental matters have a proven capability of justifying the unjustifiable. This partly explains why Malta’s environmental administration is in shambles.

Within this context I believe there are more pressing issues than the drafting of an environmental policy. Applying all the EU environmental acquis would be a good first step.

A point I have harped on in these pages (1) (2) is the non-implementation of the waste from electric and electronic equipment directive. This directive applies “the producer responsibility principle” as a result of which producers and their representatives have to take back electrical and electronic waste from consumers. Most importers are aware that they are in breach of the directive’s provisions. They feel, however, that they cannot honour their obligations unless the government reviews the eco-contribution regime as, otherwise, they will end up paying twice for the same responsibilities: a payment through eco-contribution and another one through financing the take-back.

There is also a need for legislation regulating noise pollution. EU legislation on the matter (the environmental noise directive) deals only with traffic/transport-generated noise and substantial parts of it are not applicable to Malta. As the EU does not deal sufficiently with the matter, Malta has to date considered it safe to conveniently ignore the need for noise pollution legislation completely. In a densely populated community this issue is of the utmost importance, yet, successive governments have not been bothered.

These examples (water, waste, noise) just scratch the surface of the deficiencies of the environmental set-up, an area which has been continuously muzzled, sidelined, ignored and deprived of resources. It is this attitude which has to change.

The environmental policy this country needs is one which enables its government to be clear and consistent. Declarations on their own are not sufficient as commitment has been continuously absent. If the government really wants to translate its declarations into action it will take much more than an environmental policy to Green Cinderella.

Kif tagħmel …………… jagħmlulek

 30 ta’ Diċembru 2009
 

 

Naħseb li lkoll kemm aħna konxji li l-klima qiegħda tinbidel. L-is­ta­ġuni ma tafx iżjed meta jibdew jew meta jispiċċaw. Fis-sajf sħana kbira li dejjem iżżid. Xita qawwija f’ħin qasir f’kull żmien tas-sena b’għargħar aktar ta’ spiss. Qegħdin niffaċċjaw estre­mi ta’ temp. Dawn huma wħud mill-indikazzjonijiet li għandna f’Malta li l-klima qiegħda tin­bidel.

F’pajjiżi oħrajn it-temp inbidel ukoll. Insegwu dak li qed jiġri fuq il-televiżjoni, bħall-għargħar riċenti f’Cumbria fit-Tramuntana tal-Ingilterra jew l-urugan Kat­rina li ħarbat l-istat ta’ New Orleans fl-Istati Uniti tal-Amerika fi tmiem Awwissu, 2005. Inkella l-urugani spissi fl-istat Ameri­kan ta’ Florida. Anki fl-Ewropa segwejna każi estremi ta’ temp kemm f’dik li hi temperatura kif ukoll għargħar ikkawżat diret­ta­ment mix-xita inkella mill-faw­ran ta’ xmajjar.

Il-parti l-kbira tax-xjenzjati jaqblu li dan kollu hu prinċi­pal­ment ir-riżultat akkumulat tul is-snin ta’ emissjonijiet mill-ħruq ta’ żjut u faħam biex il-bniedem jipproduċi l-enerġija, kif ukoll mit-trasport u minn proċessi industrijali. Naqsu wkoll il-foresti f’kull parti tad-dinja biex jittieħed l-injam tagħ­hom għall-ħatab, għall-bini ta’ djar jew għal xi użu ieħor bħall-bini tax-xwieni fi żminijiet oħ­rajn. Il-foresti naqsu wkoll biex żdiedet l-art għall-agrikoltura.

B’hekk id-dinja qiegħda żżomm is-sħana tax-xemx bħal f’serra bir-riżultat li t-tem­pe­ra­tura madwarna qiegħda togħla ftit ftit. Dan iżda ma jseħħx bl-istess mod kullimkien. Ix-xjen­zati huma tal-opinjoni li jekk it-temperatura taqbeż dik tal-bidu taż-żmien industrijali b’aktar minn 2 gradi Celsius, iseħħu tibdiliet kbar fil-klima. Tibdiliet li ħdejhom dak li seħħ s’issa jitqies bħala insinjifikanti. Rap­preżentanti ta’ gżejjer kemm fil-Paċifiku kif ukoll fil-Karibew qegħ­din jinsistu li l-limitu mas­simu għandu jkun 1.5 gradi Celsius fuq it-temperatura taż-żmien pre-industrijali. Dan qegħdin jgħiduh għax huma diġà qegħdin iħossu wieħed mill-effetti tal-bidla fil-klima. Il-livell tal-baħar qed jogħla u dawk li joqogħdu f’uħud minn dawn il-ġżejjer diġà qed ikoll­hom idabbru rashom. L-ewwel refuġjati tal-klima fil-fatt kienu r-residenti tal-gżejjer Carteret fil-Papua New Guinea liema gżejjer diġà bdew jiġu mgħot­tijin bl-ilma baħar. Sal-2015, hu kkalkolat li dawn il-gżejjer ikunu mgħarrqin kompletament bħala riżultat tal-bdil gradwali fil-livell tal-baħar.

Fl-Afrika wkoll it-temp inbidel drastikament. F’uħud mill-pajjiżi Afrikani bħas-Somalja, l-Etjopja u l-Eritrea hemm nixfa kbira u dan bħala riżultat ta’ nuqqas ta’ xita fuq perjodu twil ta’ żmien. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan, l-agrikoltura mhix tirrendi u n-nies m’għandhiex x’tiekol. Iffaċ­ċati b’dan, in-nies qegħdin jitil­qu minn dawn il-pajjiżi u qegħ­din jemigraw lejn pajjiżi oħrajn. Jaslu sal-Libja jew xi pajjiż ieħor bħall-Marokk u mbagħad jaq­smu lejn l-Ewropa b’numru minn­hom jispiċċaw Malta. Numru mhux żgħir minn dawn l-immigranti li f’pajjiżna nsej­ħul­hom “immigranti illegali” huma vittmi tal-bidla fil-klima.

Il-bidla fil-klima lilna f’Malta tista’ teffettwana b’mod dras­ti­ku wkoll u dan fi żmien mhux wisq ’il bogħod. In-nuqqas ta’ xita u l-għoli tal-livell tal-baħar se jkollhom effett dirett fuq l-agrikultura. L-ilma tal-pjan na­qas sewwa kemm fil-kwantità kif ukoll fil-kwalità. Dan riżultat tal-‘boreholes’, kemm dawk legali kif ukoll dawk illegali. Jekk ikun baqa’ ilma tal-pjan, dan se jkompli jiġi mgħarraq għax ikun diġà sar salmastru hekk kif il-livell tal-baħar jogħla ftit ftit. L-ilma ma jkunx iżjed tajjeb biex jintuża la għax-xorb, la għat-tisqija u lanqas għall-industrija għax ikun wisq mie­laħ. Ikun jeħtieg li jiġi trattat bir-‘reverse osmosis’ jew xi pro­ċess ieħor li jkollu bżonn ħafna enerġija. Bla ilma, kif nafu, ma jista’ jsir xejn.

Dakinhar li pajjiżna jirrealizza li ġie wiċċ imbwiċċ ma’ din il-prob­lema, dawk minna li jkunu għadhom jgħixu hawn, ikunu fl-istess pożizzjoni ta’ dawn l-“im­migranti illegali”, refuġjati tal-klima huma wkoll u jibdew ifittxu x’imkien ieħor fejn jistgħu jgħixu.

Tgħid ikunu lesti li jaċċettaw li jkunu trattati bħall-immigranti li jaslu Malta illum: li jkunu msakkrin, bl-għassa u b’deten­zjo­ni ta’ 18-il xahar imposta fuq­hom mingħajr ma qatt għamlu ħsara lil ħadd?

Wara kollox mhux kif tagħ­mel jagħmlulek?

L-ilma mormi l-baħar

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

Il-Korporazzjoni għas-Servizzi tal-Ilma (KSI) taħseb li d-drenaġġ ippurifikat m’għandux valur ekonomiku. Ħadd ma jrid iħallas għalih. Jidher li għalhekk hemm l-arranġament li l-ilma msoffi jispiċċa l-baħar.

 

Dan huwa riżultat tal-inkompetenza tal-awtoritajiet li ħallew aċċess inkontrollat għall-ilma tal-pjan permezz ta’ boreholes illegali mifruxin ma’ Malta kollha. Din hi responsabbilta tal-Awtorita Maltija tar-Riżorsi iżda għal snin twal kienet ukoll responsabbilta tal-KSI.

 

Jekk l-awtoritajiet tul is-snin ippermettew it-teħid tal-ilma tal-pjan b’xejn permezz ta’ boreholes illegali, m’huwiex ovvju illi ħadd m’hu lest li jħallas biex juża l-ilma irriċiklat ? Jekk tista’ liberament tinqeda b’xejn tkun baħnan jekk tħallas !

 

Il-KSI tidher li assumiet li m’huwiex ser ikun hemm bdil fis-sitwazzjoni u għalhekk għażlet speċifikament is-siti għall-impjanti tad-drenaġġ fit-truf ta’ Malta fejn huwa iktar possibli li l-ilma msoffi jintrema l-baħar mil-ewwel. Dawn huma l-istess postijiet li minnhom kien (u għadu s’issa) jintefa d-drenaġġ fil-baħar. Li kieku taw każ li l-ilma seta jintuża kienu jintagħżlu siti iktar viċin iċ-ċentru tal-pajjiż biex dan ikun aċċessibli bla diffikulta fiż-żoni agrikoli kollha mingħajr il-ħtieġa ta’ ħafna spejjes addizzjonali.

 

Id-Direttiva tal-EU dwar id-drenaġġ [EU Wastewater Directive] tistabilixxi biss il-kwalita li l-ilma jrid ikollu qabel ma jintefa’ l-baħar. Ma toffri l-ebda gwida dwar x’jista’ jsir mill-ilma. Dak sta għalina f’Malta biex niddeterminawh. Meta tqies li madwar 60% tal-ilma tax-xorb f’Malta huwa prodott b’mod artifiċjali u bi spiża sostanzjali permezz tal-impjanti ta’ disalinazzjoni, huwa irresponsabbli li l-ilma prodott mill-impjant ta’ purifikazzjoni tad-drenaġġ jitqies bħala xi ħaġa ta’ bla valur. Qed nitkellmu dwar xi ħaġa (l-ilma) li f’pajjiżna dejjem kienet skarsa.

 

Mhux il-bogħod il-jum meta bħala riżultat ta’ iktar tnaqqis fl-ilma tal-pjan, kif ukoll bħala riżultat tal-miżuri li Malta trid tieħu biex timxi mal-EU Water Framework Directive ser ikun neċessarju li jkun ikkunsidrat li l-ilma prodott mill-impjanti tal-purifikazzjoni tad-drenaġġ fix-Xgħajra u ċ-Ċumnija tal-Mellieħa ikun użat. Imbagħad ser ikun hemm min jirrealizza illi l-impjanti tar-riċiklaġġ tad-drenaġġ qegħdin il-bogħod wisq. Imbagħad ser ikun hemm min jargumenta li l-ispiża biex ikun trasportat l-ilma hi għolja wisq.

 

Din hi inkompetenza amministrattiva. Min ser jassumi r-responsabbilta’ ?