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