Stormwater Management: entrenched incompetence

(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

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

Il-Gvern jiftaħar li ser jarmi l-ilma tax-xita fil-baħar

Malta storm

 

Spikkat l-aħbar il-bieraħ li x-xogħol fuq il-mina ta’ tnax-il kilometru li ser tiżbokka f’Ta’ Xbiex biex ittaffi l-impatt tal-għargħar wasal fl-aħħar.

Din il-mina ser isservi biex fiha jinġabar l-ilma tax-xita li jkun għaddej mit-toroq. Il-parti l-kbira ta’ dan l-ilma ser jintefa l-baħar. Il-Gvern qiegħed jiftaħar li dan l-ilma tax-xita ser jintefa’ fil-baħar.

Tajjeb dan? Dan hu ħela ta’ riżorsi u ma nistax nifhem min kien dak l-għaref li approva li juża’ l-miljuni ta’ euros f’fondi Ewropej biex narmu dan l-ilma tax-xita l-baħar.

Il-parti l-kbira ta’ dan l-ilma tax-xita ikun fit-toroq minħabba li ħafna bini li inbena matul dawn l-aħħar 50 sena huwa mingħajr bir. Għal din ir-raġuni l-ilma tax-xita mill-bjut ta’ dan il-bini jispiċċa fit-toroq jew jintefa’ fid-drenaġġ li għax ma jlaħħaqx ifur fit-toroq ta’ diversi lokalitajiet.

Mela meta l-Gvern (ta’ Gonzi) ta’ bidu għal dan il-proġett kien qed jagħmel tajjeb għall-abbużi li saru mill-industrija tal-bini tul dawn l-aħħar 50 sena. Il-Gvern sikwit jipprietka li min iħammeġ għandu jnaddaf (the polluter pays). Allura għax ma darx fuq min kien responsabbli u ġiegħlu jerfa’ l-konsegwenzi ta’ egħmilu?

Flok ma mexa b’responsabbilta, l-Gvern daħħal idejh fil-but tagħna u mill-kaxxa ta’ Malta kif ukoll mill-fondi Ewropej qed jagħmel tajjeb għall-ħsara kbira li l-industrija tal-bini għamlet tul is-snin.

Din ir-realta’ ma jgħidulkomx biha meta jkunu qed jippużaw għar-ritratti.

Ta' Xbiex storm water

 

 

A five drop policy

We need a five drop policy: a sustainable water policy which would treat with care our five sources of water.

Drop No. 1 is a drop of rainwater. We need to handle rainwater with care. If we harvest it appropriately we will be able to make use of it when it is required. If we harvest it we will also reduce its flow in streets and diminish substantially the overloading of our sewers whenever it rains.

Drop No. 2 is a drop of storm water. Storm water flowing through our streets can be substantially reduced if rainwater harvesting is done appropriately. The remaining storm water would then be less of a danger to life and limb. It would be less of a civil protection issue and much more an exercise of collecting rainwater from streets to be utilised for non-potable purposes.

Drop No. 3 is a drop of ground water. Ground water has been mishandled for years on end. It is time that we realise that this resource which has been collected and stored by nature is finite. Through the years it has been over-extracted such that the quality of what’s left is compromised. It has also been contaminated by human activity, primarily agriculture, such that it would take a minimum of 40 years to reverse the process.

Drop No. 4 is a drop of treated sewage effluent. Treated sewage effluent is being discarded as a waste when it should be valued as a very precious resource. Treating sewage before discharging it into the sea honours Malta’s obligations under the Urban Wastewater Directive of the European Union. However throwing it away into the sea is an unsustainable practice which should be discontinued. We should appreciate its value and put it to good use. At the moment we are discharging treated sewage effluent into the sea at three points along our coast and then taking it up again at other points to produce potable water through our reverse osmosis plants!

Drop No. 5 is a drop of sea water.  Sea water is much cleaner nowadays due to sewage being treated before discharging into the sea. This has improved substantially our bathing waters. But sea water is also the source of over 55% of our potable water which we process through our reverse osmosis plants.

These five drops of water make up our water resources.

Water is of strategic importance to ensure a healthy eco-system, for our quality of life as well as for our economy.  Government can and should do much more to protect this precious resource. But we should also consider how we could improve our input by using this resource properly.

A sustainable water policy is a five drop policy through which each and every one of us values each and every source of water.

This post was originally published in di-ve.com on Friday 9th November 2012

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”.