Our water bills will have to change as water in Malta is not realistically priced. The Government is aware of this yet it is not informing the public. The Labour Party on the other hand is ignoring the pointers and foolishly insisting on the unsustainable electoral promise of reducing water bills.
A realistic water pricing policy is needed to ensure proper management of water resources. This can be done by ensuring that proper subsidies are in place for the basic use of water while simultaneously penalising waste.
In terms of article 9 of the Water Framework Directive of the European Union, Malta, like all other EU member states, must have a realistic water pricing system in place. The pricing system shall take account “of the principle of recovery of the costs of water services, including environmental and resource costs…”
In a report dated November 14, 2012 in reply to Malta’s submissions on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, the European Commission takes Malta to task on the pricing of water. The report, addressed to the European Parliament and the European Council, states that “it seems that environmental and resource costs have not been included in the cost recovery calculation”.
The price for water which the Water Services Corporation charges is limited to recovering its operational costs.
When the corporation extracts groundwater it does not pay for the water extracted. The cost of the water extracted (referred to as the resource cost) is ignored. This is obviously an incorrect practice as groundwater does have a cost which is dependent on a variety of factors. Once identified, on the basis of proper studies, this is a cost which must be added to the current charges. This is a matter which the Malta Resources Authority as the regulator should have been analysing for the past years.
In addition to the operational costs and the resource costs there are also the environmental costs which must be identified and quantified. The EU, in order to assist in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, facilitates a Common Implementation Strategy through which Guidance documents and technical reports are produced assisting member states in coming to grips with what is expected from them to protect water resources within their territories. Guidance document No. 1, in fact, entitled Economics And The Environment, is a 274-page long technical document which explains in detail what is to be taken into consideration.
I am informed that the Malta Resources Authority, after EU accession, carried out such an exercise of identifying and costing in detail the resource and environmental costs of water. Producing these studies is part of its role as the competent authority to report to the Commission on the economics of water use as required under Article 5 of the Directive –
that the management of water resources in the Maltese Islands is on a sound footing. The authority, I am informed, also made detailed professional proposals as to the Programme of Measures required by article 11 of the Water Framework Directive. This leads me to conclude that the Government has been in receipt of sound professional advice as to what needs to be done to manage in a professional manner Malta’s water resources. Unfortunately this advice has been ignored. This is a political responsibility yet to be shouldered.
The Auditor General’s Performance Audit entitled Safeguarding Malta’s Groundwater, published in February 2012, is an eye-opener as to the measures which have not yet been implemented (fully or partially). One of the most worrying is the metering of boreholes. The MRA has not been given adequate means which would go a long way to fast-track this control on the rate of extraction of groundwater. The end result is that notwithstanding that metering of boreholes was accepted by the Government as a suitable measure very late in the day, its implementation is already two years behind schedule.
The metering of boreholes should be the first step of a process leading to a long-term objective ensuring that all boreholes are no longer operational. It should be clear to all that ground water is public property.
Even agriculture should be slowly weaned away from the use of ground water. Adequately polished treated sewage effluent would be a suitable alternative.
Water is a precious resource essential for our well-being. It is essential for the well-being of our families, for our agriculture, for our manufacturing industry as well as for tourism. Notwithstanding its being a basic requirement for practically all our activities, it has been mismanaged for a very long time. Successive governments have ignored its mishandling.
Water has been considered as a freebie for far too long. It is now time to pay for past mistakes. If we take longer to realise this fact the environmental bills will be insurmountable. Hence it is irresponsible for the Labour Party to promise a reduction of water bills.
originally published in The Times, December 22, 2012