Sunday, August 24, 2008
Water – ALFRED E. BALDACCHINO
The international scenario – Today there is quite a healthy awareness of global environmental problems such as climate change, global food crisis, the spiralling cost of fossil fuel, and the melting Arctic ice cap. However, one can rightfully conclude that these global crises have somewhat overshadowed the water crisis, despite the fact that water is a central resource, both directly and indirectly related to all the others. This may be due to the fact that global concerns have been tackled separately rather than in a holistic way. It is therefore not surprising that a serious management approach for such a scarce resource has dwindled due to the lack of, or weakened, strategy. This despite the fact that at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg in 2002, it was agreed that countries should integrate water-resource management and water-efficiency plans by 2005. One can understand that tackling such a complex subject differs from one country to another so it is not that easy to formulate a generic “roadmap”.
The Maltese scenario – Malta is one of the top 10 arid countries in the world. It has always been so. This was one of the main reasons why the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem were not at all keen on setting up house in Malta. It was Hobson’s choice that established them here in 1530. With regard to the supply and availability of water, the Order’s professional tailor-made management plans are still valid and still serve the islands and its people. This despite the fact that today some of their management measures are neglected, while others have been abused or completely eliminated in the very recent past. The legal obligation that every dwelling should have a well to collect rainwater was a very intelligent measure; it still is and still serves the inhabitants who are fortunate enough to have such a system. Still in force today although hardly enforced, if at all: “Every house shall also have a cistern in good condition, of a capacity of at least three cubic metres, for every five square metres of the surface of the floor of each room of such house.” (Chapter 10 of the Laws of Malta – Code of Police Laws).
The affluent world we live in today could tempt some to convince themselves that Malta does not have any particular water problem, because the islands are surrounded by sea, has unlimited water access, and so can never run out of water. Try drinking a drop of such water! One can, but only after it has been processed by energy-intensive desalination plants, which contribute to climate change as well as to the food crisis that is demanding more water. And, God forbid, what if there is an oil spill or other toxic leaks in the vicinity of the desalination plants? The Mediterranean is one of the most frequented seas in the world, and European news speak with alarming enthusiasm about the nuclear plants being planned around the Mediterranean coast.
A management plan – Sadly, the word “management” is one word that seems very difficult for us to comprehend, to administer, enforce and implement. We are more accustomed to mismanagement with crisis management being our rule of thumb. The water management plans drafted and implemented by the Knights of Malta are barely implemented or strengthened, despite the fact that the demand for such a precious resource has increased substantially. The consequences of centuries of neglect are now becoming evident. To be able to have a sustainable management plan one must have the necessary data, besides the necessary tools, to consistently monitor and enforce. Some points to address for data gathering are:
- Water tables: both the perched and the lower water tables have contributed substantially, and still do, to the welfare of the Maltese community, both from an economical, social and ecological point of view. The ever increasing demand for water and the availability of mechanical and technological facilities have made it much easier to access, and also have an negative impact on such a resource. The number of bore holes, legal and illegal, all reach deep down and pump up this water. The legal and illegal use of pesticides, herbicides, natural and artificial fertilisers, can, and some do, finish in the aquifers. The state of the environment indicators for 2007 published by Mepa, clearly show that the increase of nitrate levels in the aquifers exceeds EU standards. How long will the ground water be available and be potable?
- Protection of sensitive springs: dried river beds, known as valleys (widien), traverse the islands from west to east. Today we are more familiar with springs (għejjun) that feed precious water to the surroundings, some a sorry reminder of their glorious past. Some springs are behind closed and chained doors, others have been sucked dry, while others still laboriously function, without doubt carrying the hidden chemicals of “progressive” farming and landscaping. Others, managed as a whole network of planed tunnels and culverts ensuring that not a drop of water is wasted, engineered by the Knights of Malta, have watered hundreds of trees and vegetables for centuries. Yet some of these networks have been cut off from their source, like the ones at Nadur, which have been extensively damaged to make way for a glorified place for the dead – a cemetery. Progressive planning for our future demand for graves perhaps!
- Afforestation: it is not only denuding the land of its vegetation that has an impact on water resources, but also the choice of species that are planted. The thousands of alien Eucalyptus trees planted in valleys, on garigue, in fields, in abandoned fields, and in urban areas, do have a tremendous negative impact on water resources. The fact that these trees are used to drain marshes will help one conclude that they contribute to the waste of ground water. A relatively recent trend is the laying of open spaces with turf, some even in roundabouts. Aesthetically they are pleasing. They are however irrigated by electrically powered sprinklers, which at times water even the roads. In the context of the local environment, it is like filling a valley with ice where one can go skating in summer. Not impossible, but at what cost! Thank God that plans for golf courses seem to have been shelved.
- Urban planning: every footprint of any building has its impact on water. This was fully understood by the planners and professional resource managers of the Knights of Malta. They ensured that every drop of water that fell on buildings was meticulously saved. In today’s technological era, it is ensured that every drop of water that falls on such buildings is mechanically channelled into the streets so that it can find its own natural and at-no-cost way to the sea. The amount of water going to waste is unbelievable. It does not have to rain cats and dogs: just a shower, like the Birkirkara and Qormi residents, among others, can attest. Due to the aridity of the islands, the Maltese have always prayed for rain. Today, the more rain God sends us, the more water will flood the streets on its way to the open sea. We desperately need to pray to God to illuminate our planners and resource managers and help them get to grips with the management of such a scarce resource similar to the management plans implemented by the Knights of St John 400 years ago.
- Wise use: this waste of water is the result of our acceptance and dependence on energy consuming desalination plants, despite their fragility and financial cost. We are so obsessed with desalination plants that the precious second-class water, which according to the EU is being produced from sewage treatment plants, has been officially declared as water of “no economic value”, and is being discharged into the sea. Only for the RO plants a couple of metres away to take it up again with more concentrated salinity, to be processed into potable water. Even if such plants were to use wind or solar energy, it would still be a waste of energy and resources and lacking any management plan.
Conclusion – We are treading on very, very thin ice, and if no urgent attention is given to implement a professional management plan for such a fragile, delicate, and rare resource, we could find ourselves in very deep waters, ironically enough without the possibility of having a drop to drink. Such a management plan has to be part of a holistic national sustainable development plan, having the input of all other entities which directly or indirectly use or have an impact on water resources, incorporating health, agriculture, industry, waste, tourism, finance and the environment. Everyone has to play his part for a real sustainable future. Procrastination is the thief of time. Where there is water there is life. There is no life where there is no water.