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When your theme is water, there are really only a few places to start investigating the impact that water can have. Those places would either be very wet, or very dry.

When we think of dry EU nations, we probably imagine Portugal, Spain or Greece first, but Malta has the highest Water Competivity Index in the world (the amount of renewable water per capita). To get a better feel for how this precious resource is used or misused, I spoke to Malta’s leading water campaigner and green entrepreneur, Marco Cremona.

Bearing in mind just how dry Malta is, it would seem obvious that water is treated as a very precious resource. Is this the case?

Malta only receives around 550mm of rainfall a year, the greater part of which falls over a period of a few months from October to February, with the rest of the year being dry to very dry. Malta also has the highest population density in the EU, which when compounded with more than 1.2 million tourists a year, places a huge demand on the country’s infrastructure, especially water supply.

Malta has no rivers or lakes; 68% of Malta’s water comes from groundwater which is being exploited at a rate of almost 50% over and above sustainable extraction levels. The balance comes from seawater desalination, which consumes 7% of all the electricity used in the country, all of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels in power stations.

So in theory, the appreciation and value of water should be high in Malta but this is not the case. Malta has more than 8,000 private boreholes, most of which have been drilled illegally and are extracting more groundwater than what the public water utility, the Water Services Corporation (WSC) pumps up from the aquifers. As a result, illegally-extracted water is pumped up for free, transported by water tanker all over the country and sold to farmers, factories, hotels, laundries and even households.

As a result, the economic value of water has remained absurdly low with the consequence that there has been little investment in water conservation, improving water efficiency and the use of alternative sources of water such as rainwater harvesting and treated effluent from wastewater treatment plants.

Where does Malta’s potable water come from?

The WSC gets its water from two sources: groundwater and three reverse osmosis (RO) desalination plants. At present, groundwater still accounts for 43% of the potable water supply; the balance comes from the RO plants.

The quantity of water derived from groundwater is decreasing year after year because of the deteriorating water quality status of the aquifers. Consequently this loss in groundwater production has to be compensated by an increase in RO water production, which is 6-8 times more expensive than groundwater – even when not accounting for the resource cost as defined and stipulated by the EU Water Framework Directive.

Is the price of water, to businesses, farmers and consumers appropriate for such scarcity?

In general, the quality of town water in Malta meets the requirements of the EU Drinking Water Directive. There is no piped supply of second class water to agriculture in Malta.
The price of town water to domestic consumers (consuming a typical 33 m3 per person per year)is Euro 1.47 per cubic metre (1 cubic metre = 1000 litres); which works out at Euro 0.1323 per person per day. This price is one of the lowest in the EU and does not reflect the scarcity of the resource.

(By comparison, the electricity consumption bill for households in Malta is 10 times more expensive, making energy a much more valued resource than water – so much so that financial incentives exist for solar water heating, energy-saving light bulbs etc, but nothing for water).

The cost for business varies from Euro 1.75/m3 to Euro 2.50/m3 (with the lower tariff ironically being applied to large water consumers); however a good number of businesses do not consume town water, since they have their own private boreholes which they use to extract groundwater (a public resource) for free.

The reason why town water is relatively inexpensive is mainly because the WSC gets almost half its water from free from the ground, and Malta is probably the only country in the EU where consumers do not pay for sewerage services and for flood mitigation infrastructure.

However, this is not a question of simply introducing or increasing water charges, as experience has shown us that as soon as town water tariffs were increase the population and industry drill more boreholes and consequently increased the stress on our groundwater reserves, to the detriment of the population which pays for the (town)water it consumes and to the detriment of future generations.

Unless drastic action is taken to curb over-extraction, in my opinion, groundwater in Malta as a strategic and economic resource will become extinct within the next 15 years, with the result that all freshwater in Malta would then have to come from energy intensive desalination plants (in Malta, all energy comes from fossil fuels; Malta has less than 0.1% renewable energy sources at present).

Do you think that the Maltese government takes water use seriously? Could they do more, if so, what?

Malta’s water resources are underground, and therefore invisible. The population has no idea about the disastrous state of our water sources (in a report issued by the Malta Resources Authority (MRA) 13 out of 15 aquifers in the Maltese Islands have been confirmed to be in a ‘poor’ state in 2010, including all of the most important aquifers).

It has been in the interest of all politicians throughout successive administrations to keep the problem under wraps, because any politician who decides to address the matter will inevitably become unpopular with the thousands of people who abuse Malta’s water resources and lose votes.

Indeed, the 2006 FOA report ‘Malta Water Resources Review’ says that “Malta’s core water challenge is one of water governance” (Executive Summary) Link

Unfortunately, Malta’s water regulator (the Malta Resources Authority) is weak and not completely autonomous from government (it is answerable to the Minister of Resources and Rural Affairs); it lacks the human and financial resources to properly administer the numerous and complex issues related to the water situation in Malta and does not have the political clout to stand up to those who are abusing Malta’s water resources.

What is your role in this? What steps do you hope to achieve to help Malta right this balance?

I am one of a few hydrologists in the country, and since 10 years ago I decided to speak my mind about the disastrous state of our water resources and that we’re heading towards a crisis. I am regularly on the media (TV, radio and newspapers) talking/writing about local water issues, but in the last few years I have also taken the initiative to develop solutions that show that sustainable water management in this country is possible, also to embarrass the government into action.

In 2006, I developed what is probably the world’s first urban-stormwater-to-potable water treatment plant in the world (in winter, Malta has lots of stormwater which the country cannot use in its present state for agriculture for example, so the solution lies in treating it to potable water to augment the conventional town water supplies); my house in Mosta is completely self-sufficient in water use, using a combination of rainwater harvesting, low-cost greywater recycling and water conservation practices (this project won the France 5 Report Terre award 2009 as the best environmental project in the EU); In 2008, I developed HOTER, a process that saves 85% of the water consumed by a hotel by treating wastewater into 2nd class and potable water (this project was selected as one of three finalists in the CNBC/Allianz Good Entrepreneur competition for the Best Green Business Idea in Europe).

This year I am working on developing a system that allows the rainwater falling from roofs of public and private buildings to be diverted to the ground, so as to increase groundwater recharge and mitigate flooding during storm events.

FG: Mr Cremona, thank you very much. This has been a fascinating explanation of the problems that your island faces.

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  1. fascinating well written article, thanks.
    is there a future for decentralised RWH systems there? And what about controlling groundwater pollution from diffuse runoff?

    1. Good questions! Since I am no water expert, I’ll get in touch with Marco and see if he can help.

  2. wow. that was truly an interesting story! hope malta copes with it. but hey, you can always take water from italy(although it will cost you’ll never mind of thirst) 🙂

  3. Nice post The reason why town water is relatively inexpensive is mainly because the WSC gets almost half its water from free from the ground, and Malta is probably the only country in the EU where consumers do not pay for sewerage services and for flood mitigation infrastructure. In general, the quality of town water in Malta meets the requirements of the EU Drinking Water Directive. There is no piped supply of second class water to agriculture in Malta. Thanks a lot for posting.

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