Harvesting rainwater

flooding.Bkara

At the time of writing the average rainfall in Malta from 1st September 2014 to date is recorded at 442.4 mm. The actual rainfall varies from a high of 529.6mm recorded at Selmun to a low of 373.7mm noted at Valletta. With still some months to go, it seems that precipitation in the Maltese islands during the current year will shortly exceed the average annual precipitation of 553.12mm, computed by Charles Galdies in his National Statistics Office publication entitled The Climate of Malta: statistics, trends and analysis 1951-2010. It will however be far short of 955.62mm, the maximum recorded precipitation in Malta which was recorded at Luqa Airport in 1951.

Since 1880, legislation in Malta has specifically provided for the construction of water cisterns in buildings, primarily residential ones. The dimensions of these water cisterns varied over time. Originally they were related to the floor area of the residential building. Recently, the required volume was reduced to be related to the footprint of the building.

These regulatory provisions are however more honoured in the breach, even when reduced. This is not a recent phenomenon. Regulatory control in Malta has been in decline since the 1960s building boom.

Instead of being collected in rainwater cisterns, in an ever increasing number of cases, rainwater is discharged directly onto our roads, or else into the public sewers. As a result, navigating some of our roads during or immediately after heavy rainfall is a dangerous exercise.

This is a case of water literally going down the drain. Large volumes of storm water, which can be utilised for various purposes, are being wasted. Much has been written about the potential use of harvested rainwater. Its use domestically can substantially reduce water bills.

It is also an issue of civil protection. Large quantities of rainwater in our streets, at times moving at an excessive velocity, are a danger to life and limb. Fortunately, it is very rare for people to lose their life in storms in Malta, but damage to property is a more frequent occurrence.

When rainwater is discharged into our overburdened public sewers, not only does the water overflow onto our streets, but it also increases the costs of sewage purification unnecessarily. These costs are recovered through our water bills. Hence, in the end, we all pay the costs of this abuse, irrespective of whether we are participants or not.

The major culprits are a substantial portion of the developers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. The government, directly, as well as through its agencies, has also been responsible for the development of housing estates without providing for rainwater harvesting.

In particular, it is common knowledge that in cases where basement or semi-basement garages are constructed, the duty to provide for rainwater harvesting is very rarely complied with. Since 1992, MEPA has 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.

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 newly- constructed properties to connect the drains with the public sewer.

Is the WSC verifying that it is only the drains that are connected and, in particular, that rainwater pipes are not connected to the public sewer too? The obvious answer is provided by our streets on a rainy day. No one is bothering to check what is connected to the public sewer . 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 developments, it is not the only one to blame. The authorities and government departments must take a substantial share of the blame for not shouldering their regulatory responsibilities. They could have stopped the abuse, but they did not.

A number of areas are practically 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 back installed a storm warning system to alert residents and passers-by that, “danger was on the way”! Public authorities in Malta, unfortunately, have developed the habit of dealing with the effects but continuously ignore the cause of flooding!

Monies made available by the EU have been used to fund a project for the construction of underground tunnels through which it is planned to collect rainwater from our streets and roads and to discharge most of the collected storm water into the sea.

The EU funds utilised in the construction of these tunnels have been utilised to squander a very precious resource. European taxpayers’ monies too have been flushed down the drain. They could have been put to a much better use if they had been applied to address the lack of adequate rainwater harvesting in our towns and villages.

We have been inundated with political speeches lauding sustainability and sustainable development. However, when push comes to shove, it is more than amply clear that this is just a case of some Members of Parliament showing off a newly-acquired vocabulary they have not yet understood. In 2015, Malta still lacks a sustainable water policy.

Published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 February 2015

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World Environment Day: “Government’s environment policy is beyond repair” : AD

World Environment Day: “Government’s environment policy is beyond repair” AD  

On occasion of  world environment day, Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party said that one should reflect on what has been carried out, what has been omitted and on what was just done for the sake of it in terms of environmental policy. Whilst the Environment was projected to be one of the foundations for political action of GonziPN it is now clear to everyone that it is cracked and beyond repair.  

Carmel Cacopardo, AD spokesperson for Sustainable Development and Local Government, said that “environment responsibilities for GonziPN is like a political football with responsibilities moving on from one Minister to another. Environmental responsibilities are fragmented in various Ministries increasing the difficulty for implementation of policy.   

Focusing on the water situation one still observes the large quantities of water in our streets which are channelled towards the sea almost every time it rains. This happens notwithstanding laws which have been on the statute book for over 130 years which require water harvesting measures in every building. MEPA still issues compliance certificates relative to buildings which are not provided with a rainwater well however it shifts the blame onto MRA.

This week the Prime Minister inaugurated the sewage purification plant at Ta’ Barkat limits of  Xgħajra. It was a good step but it was only done in order to fulfil EU obligations and not out of an environmental conviction. Substantial financial resources were applied with the resulting purified waters being dumped directly into the sea as to date the government is still considering this water as having no economic value.”

Water has been mismanaged throughout the years and unfortunately the current government does not indicate any change of that direction.

Michael Briguglio, AD Chairperson, said that “AD therefore wishes to focus on this matter of concern on the 2011 World Environment Day. In line with the vision of sustainable development and ecological modernisation, we believe that the importance of water should be seen through the combination of environmental, social and economic dimensions.”

Jum Dinji ta’ l-ambjent: “Il-politika ambjentali tal-Gvern hi mfarrka” AD  

Fl-okkazzjoni tal-jum dinji ghall-ambjent, Alternattiva Demokratika qalet li dan il-jum għandu jservi ghal riflessjoni fuq dak li sar,  dak li kellu jsir u ma sarx, jew inkella sar biex wieħed jgħid li taparsi sar. Meta wieħed iżomm f’moħħu li l-ambjent suppost li hu wiehħed mit-tliet pilastri ta’ GonziPN u jagħti ħarsa ftit lura biex jara kif dan il-pilastu ħadem, isib li mhux talli kien hemm falliment sħiħ f’dan il-qasam, imma l-pilalstru ta’ GonziPN ixxaqqaq u qed jitfarrak ftit ftit.

Carmel Cacopardo, Kelliemi ta’ l-AD għall-Iżvilupp Sostenibbli u Gvern Lokali, qal li “l-ambjent għall-GonziPN sar qisu ballun politiku: ir-responsabbilta’ għalih tgħaddi minn Ministru għal għand ieħor. Illum ir-responsabiltajiet ambjentali huma  mifruxa bejn ħafna Ministeri b’mod li tiżdied id-diffikulta biex din titwettaq.

Nieħdu is-sitwazzjoni tal-ilma. Volumi kbar ta’ ilma għadhom isibu ruħhom fit-triqat u jintremew fil-baħar wara kull ħalba xita. Dan minkejja liġijiet tal-pajjiż li ilhom magħna il-fuq minn 130 sena li jgħidu li kull binja irid ikollha bir biex fih jinħażen l-ilma tax-xita. Minkejja dan il-MEPA xorta għada toħroġ compliance certificate lil dawk li meta jibnu ma jkollhomx dan il-bir! Il-MEPA twaħħal fl-MRA.

Din il-gimgħa rajna l-ftuħ uffiċjali mill-Prim Ministru tal-impjant tat-tisfija tad-drenaġġ f’Ta’ Barkat limiti tax-Xgħajra.  Ħaġa tajba, għalkemm din saret biss minħabba l-obbligi tal-UE u mhux minħabba xi konvinzjoni. Ammont sostanzjali ta’ riżorsi finanzjarji ġew użati biex filwaqt li d-drenaġġ jissaffa l-ilma msoffi jintefa’ l-baħar, għax skond il-Gvern dan l-ilma m’għandux valur ekonomiku.

Tul is-snin l-ilma gie użat hażin u ma jidhirx li dan il-Gvern fi ħsiebu jibdel id-direzzjoni.

Michael Briguglio, Chairperson ta’ AD, qal li “għalhekk, Alternattiva Demokratika tħoss li għandha tiffoka fuq l-importanza ta’ l-ilma fl-okkazjoni ta’ Jum L-Ambjent 2011. Permezz tal-viżjoni favur żvilupp sostenibbli u modernizazzjoni ekologika, AD temmen li l-importanza ta’ l-ilma għandha titqies permezz tad-dimensjonijiet ambjentali, soċjali u ekonomiċi”.

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