(photo by author dated 4 October 2018: overflowing sewer at Archbishop Gonzi Square Kalkara)
The Ministry for Public Works and Planning has embarked on another public consultation on stormwater management. I have lost count as to the number of times this exercise has been carried out along the years, directly or indirectly. At the end of the day the authorities continuously develop cold feet as they fail to address the basic issue: enforcement!
The consultation document points to a basic statistic which proves this point: only 36 per cent of dwellings have a water cistern. This notwithstanding that the matter has been codified in our legislation since 1880: that is since the approval of Ordinance I of 1880 by the British colonial government. Before that date most buildings had a water cistern. Everyone was then aware that water in Malta is scarce and all sought to do their part in collecting rainwater. Nowadays no one cares, as long as there is water in the tap!
The consultation document, entitled Green Stormwater Infrastructure Guidance Manual, drawing on Census 2011 information, further points out that it is in the sector of apartment blocks that one finds the largest number of infringements in non-provision of water cisterns. Compliance ranges from 80 per cent in the case of villas to 4 per cent in the case of apartments. On a geographic level it is probably no surprise that Gozo is only 25 per cent compliant!
As is also pointed out by the consultation document the present state of water harvesting is the result of a lack of adequate enforcement. I would emphasise that it is a case of an incompetent, almost inexistent, enforcement. It is very easy to point at developers who try to avoid excavating or constructing water cisterns, reducing his costs and increasing profits. They have a number of accomplices, who ignore this fact and then proceed to certify works as having been completed satisfactorily. In these instances, compliance certificates are issued just the same by the Planning Authority. Likewise, the Water Services Corporation authorises the connection of foul water drains from such developments to the public sewer without generally bothering to ascertain as to where rainwater is being collected or directed.
Rainwater is to be collected in a water cistern which should be fitted with an overflow which directs excess rainwater onto the street. Instead, a number of developments direct all rainwater directly onto the street. At times, unfortunately increasing in frequency, rainwater is disposed of directly into the public sewer.
This is the cause of flooded streets and overflowing sewers with which we are very familiar during and after heavy rainfall.
Enforcement hits hard as non-compliance is widespread. This is the primary reason as to why no government has seriously embarked on tackling this problem. In the past government, instead of addressing the root cause of the problem, that is the non-provision of water cisterns, embarked on the drilling of a number of tunnels to facilitate the collection of rainwater and its dumping into the sea. Millions of euros in EU funds were utilised in this exercise, literally money down the drain. Notwithstanding this misapplication of EU funds, the problem of flooded streets and overflowing sewers is still a common occurrence during and immediately after heavy rainfall.
Having expertly drawn up codes and manuals is generally helpful. It is however no substitute for clear indiscriminate enforcement: no exceptions allowed. It is what we lack. It is the result of clientelism forming an integral part of the philosophy of government and administration. It is a political disease which is not limited to stormwater management but as we all know is spread throughout the public administration.
If those employed to implement our laws, rules and regulations get on with their jobs, the problem of stormwater management would be substantially smaller, and definitely quite manageable!
The basic problem which the consultation document does not discuss is that there is no political will to ensure that simple rules on rainwater harvesting are observed by all. The rest follows.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 3rd July 2022