Malta’s dwindling capacity to retain groundwater and “phenomenal” increases in water demand are two key factors putting the country’s water supply at even greater risk from climate change, a specialist in the study of water and its movement across the world told The Shift.
Hydrologist Marco Cremona, a pioneer in Malta’s initial attempts to come to terms with mitigation and adaptation strategies for climate change back in 2012, argued that the country must address critical water supply issues which are going to “get worse and worse”.
Cremona described how Malta’s main source of water supply, to the tune of around 65%, comes from the process of reverse osmosis, an energy-intensive activity that converts saltwater into clean, usable tap water.
“If you’ve got a supply of fuel, through desalination, you can produce as much freshwater as you want. That simply transforms the water problem into an energy problem,” Cremona said.
“Our only natural freshwater resources are what we can find in the ground as groundwater. This is a finite resource, you can’t simply pump as much as you want. Some people have the impression that freshwater from the ground is an infinite amount of sea water being filtered through the rocks; that’s a complete myth,” he added.
The hydrologist explained how groundwater is actually formed through water managing to make it through to Malta’s porous rocks, usually through natural areas such as woodlands and ‘scrublands’ with limited soil coverage and low-lying plants like the Mediterranean thyme.
“Before, we had a higher proportion of scrub lands and farm lands. That proportion compared to urban development has changed; now, the amount of built up land is at 40%, and built up areas don’t allow any rain water through the ground,” Cremona said. Malta’s amount of built-up land has been increasing steadily since 2013, with the number pegged at 23.7% in 2018, according to official EU statistics.
As for demand, the “phenomenal” increase cited by Cremona stems from the increase in population, the use of groundwater in agriculture compounded by difficulties related to the process of obtaining permits for a rainwater reservoir and demand from concrete batching plants and other industrial uses which require a lot of water.
“Apart from losing our capacity to replenish our water reserves, we are also experiencing less rainfall every year due to climate change,” Cremona said.
“So you’ve got two factors decreasing the input of water combined with a phenomenal increase in output. This, of course, is not sustainable; people who’ve operated boreholes for the past thirty years know what the damage is,” he added, explaining that freshwater from boreholes is becoming increasingly salty due to the depletion of reserves.
‘Groundwater should be an emergency reserve’
“We need to go for sustainable solutions across the board, not just shift the problem from one energy sector to another,” Cremona argued, reiterating his point about the country’s dependency on reverse osmosis.
“Let’s assume something happens with the reverse osmosis plant; things like oil spills, power cuts, sabotage or malfunction, for example. In the absence of groundwater, the country is literally and suddenly out of freshwater,” Cremona stressed.
“At least, we should protect groundwater – the country needs to have a strategic resource of freshwater. So if anything happens to the reverse osmosis plant, at least we’ve got a supply of water at hand,” he added.
This isn’t the first time Cremona has pressed on the importance of collecting and storing groundwater while redirecting any rainfall which cannot be collected into the natural filtering system that turns it into usable groundwater.
In 2012, Cremona had worked on Malta’s National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. More recently, the government had adopted another strategy in 2017, known as the Low Carbon Development Strategy, largely spurred on by the momentum of the Paris Agreement and EU targets meant to cut down the production of greenhouse gas emissions largely responsible for climate change.
Among the 72 recommendations issued in 2012 besides rainwater catchment and setting up the predecessor of today’s Environment and Resources Authority, the Strategy refers to ‘no tolerance’ for building on Outside Development Zones, strict monitoring of boreholes and the conversion of sewage to usable water as some of the key, drastic changes in policy necessary to deal with the effects of climate change.
“The solution for the country would be to first of all look at groundwater as not just a cheap water source but as an emergency reserve. The main problem is that we have given this perception that water is abundant and cheap,” Cremona said.
“Right now, there is this positive campaigning for tree-growing, for example, which is good. But trees need water; as a hydrologist, it sort of hurts to see such an impetus towards growing trees with nobody thinking about the water supply for them,” he added, maintaining that without long-term planning, the “vicious cycle” of one problem making the other worse would not be stopped.
While he maintained that there were “obvious benefits” to be brought about by afforestation projects and other initiatives meant to increase greenery across the islands, Cremona stated that “one cannot think about afforestation when trees are dying of a lack of water”.