Addressing the national water demand in an increasingly sustainable manner

13th June 2022

As an island, water is critical to economic and social well-being. What are the main water conservation issues that Malta faces? Malta’s semi-arid Mediterranean climate and small land-size limit the availability of natural freshwater resources. In fact, Malta does not have any economically exploitable rivers or lakes, and our only natural source of freshwater lies in deep aquifer systems. Our groundwater resources are finite, and the volume we can extract from them depends primarily on the annual recharge coming from rainfall seeping through the rocks. It is amply clear that these natural water resources are not enough to sustain our national water demand, which due to our high population density is relatively high. Therefore, attaining water supply security has been, is and will remain an important challenge for the Maltese islands. Times of Malta spoke to Manuel Sapiano, CEO at The Water and Energy Agency.

And what is being done to address these issues?

Malta’s policy for the water sector is based on the conjunctive use of water demand management and water supply augmentation measures, to address the national water demand in an increasingly sustainable manner. Water demand management measures focus on ensuring a more effective use of water resources, such as reducing leakages in the public distribution network and improving efficiency of water use in households, enterprises and the agricultural sector. Water supply augmentation measures focus on broadening our water supply base, introducing alternative (non-conventional) water resources such as desalinated sea-water, reclaimed water and harvested rainwater in the water-supply mix. Key recent measures include the Water Be the Change national water conservation campaign, the launch of the New Water programme and the commissioning of the new sea-water desalination plant in Gozo.

Manuel Sapiano

Is the impact of climate change also contributing to water scarcity?

Climate change impacts are an important factor in future water management planning, in particular since climate change will affect rainfall (reduction in rainfall and an increase in high intensity rain events) and hence result in a reduction of natural recharge to groundwater further limiting the sustainable yield from the aquifer systems. Additionally, increasing temperatures will entail a higher demand for water, in particular irrigation water. Therefore here we have two different factors which reinforce the impact of each other.

Furthermore, coupled with climate change we need also to consider other changes such as projected population growths and increased efforts to “green” the urban environment (to address climate change impacts) both of which will result in an increased demand for water.

Hence the importance of long-term planning to ensure that our water resources supply base is sufficient to ensure security of supply in an increasingly environmental and economic sustainable manner. This means that our use of water must be increasingly efficient, where adopted measures need to be adapted to our local climatic conditions.

How have EU funds contributed to increasing water security?

EU funding has had a determining impact in the development of Malta’s water management framework. Firstly, EU water legislation, such as the Water Framework Directive, has provided a benchmark transforming our water management and governance structures.

Attaining the objectives of such legislation has been supported by the EU Cohesion Fund, which has co-funded the main infrastructural interventions undertaken in recent years by the Water Services Corporation leading to increasingly energy efficient sea-water desalination systems, the development of the urban waste-water treatment plants, the water reclamation New Water programme as well as substantial upgrades to the water and wastewater networks to improve supply efficiency.

But not only – as other funding programmes such as LIFE, Horizon, INTERREG and Cross-Border programmes have enabled us to share experiences with other European regions facing similar challenges to ours, thereby broadening our water management perspectives. The outcome of these programmes has helped refine our water policy solutions, identifying new practices and technologies which can be adopted to improve water management in Malta.

How has the awareness about conserving water increased in recent years?

Over the last three years, the Energy and Water Agency has undertaken a wide-ranging campaign to promote water conservation in households, enterprises and the agricultural sector. We do have an engrained water conservation culture, outlined by key indicators such as our domestic water demand which is one of the lowest in Europe and in the agricultural sector where over 90% of irrigated land uses water saving (such as drip irrigation).

In recent years, we have also seen the market react to improve water conservation – today’s appliances are more water (and energy) efficient and therefore when changing appliances we are also indirectly reducing our water use. On this we are working at national and EU level to support the introduction of water efficiency labelling – which can provide an additional tool to an informed public to make the correct decision.

Can every household – indeed, every individual – contribute to ensuring water security?

Yes, every individual has an important role to play in ensuring water security – since water conservation starts with us, and our daily activities. The few litres which every person can save in day, when translated over the whole population can have an important impact in reducing our need for water.

Due to our high population density, around 35% of all the water used in the country is used in our households – a high figure compared to other countries in Europe with significantly lower population densities. Therefore, traditional measures such as rainwater harvesting in cisterns and innovative measures such as greywater recycling, which can provide an alternative water source at the household level have an important potential in ensuring future water supply security.

In fact, both have the capacity of reducing household water use by up to 40%, thereby proving to be an important sustainable water conservation measure. We need to update, hence, our regulatory structures to ensure that rainwater harvesting requirements for new buildings are effectively enforced and that the adoption of greywater recycling techniques is facilitated. This needs to, and will inevitably be part of our water conservation future.

Manuel Sapiano, CEO, The Water and Energy Agency

The second event for MSF 2022 on the theme Sustain Tomorrow Today is being held on Thursday, June 23 at 2pm. It will delve into the actions being taken to safeguard water, a precious resource for all living beings. Speakers and panellists will investigate the problem, as well as share some of the solutions which need to be accelerated to make this resource available for future generations.