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Meeting Malta's water challenge

Malta is set to invest in the water sector by leveraging new technologies as increasingly uncertain weather patterns underscore the urgency of boosting the country’s water security.

Last winter made history as the most arid season on record in Malta, with February 2016 listed down as the driest month since 1923. Facing the prospect of an even warmer climate and less rain in the future, Malta is seeking to invest in water conversation and recycling. Cutting-edge water-tech and innovative water management could help the country to overcome the challenges brought about by climate change on the island’s water resources. Water scarcity is not limited to Malta, and other countries prove that a water crisis is avoidable. Israel is one perfect example to follow with their breakthrough in water-tech that turned the country completely water independent.

Ancient Water-Tech

Ever since pre-historic times, Malta has recognised the need to preserve water. Going all the way back to the stone age and the building of the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples, the primitive builders felt the need to dig down cisterns into the limestone which were used as a storage for rainwater. In the 1600s, the Knights of St John built aqueducts that transported water by gravity from one village to another. Since water was such a scarce resource, the Knights also made it a requirement by law that each house has its own cistern. The 19th century then brought with it the need to venture into the exploitation of the sea level aquifer through bore holes, while the first thermal distillation plant was being constructed in Malta as early as 1881.

Water Infrastructure

As Malta’s economy grew, in particular after the island gained independence from the UK, Malta’s water needs became more critical. In the 1980s, Malta’s government made its first investment in Reverse Osmosis (RO) Desalination. Today, Malta’s Water Services Corporation (WSC) operates three RO plants. Despite being an energy-intensive and expensive technology, desalination has proven to be effective in lessening the amount of groundwater extractions. However, it does not hide the fact that overexploitation of aquifers is a reality. According to environmentalists, only 23 million cubic meters of groundwater are sustainably available for extraction, but it is estimated that some 34 million cubic meters are being extracted. This over-extraction is of serious concern as it lowers the quality of the remaining groundwater.

Water Recycling

Currently, RO desalinations plants contribute some 55% and groundwater sources another 45% to Malta’s water supply. Additionally, Malta has started to use water reclamation as a way to recycle water. Three Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) are currently operating on the Maltese islands, two of which are in Malta and another in Gozo. STP plants treat sewage water by removing solids and impurities and producing second-class water. While this water has traditionally been released into the sea, Malta is in the process of reaping the benefits of a €20 million investment in three polishing plants. These plants are treating wastewater to so-called ‘new water’ for agricultural purposes. It is estimated that more than seven million cubic metre of new water could be produced annually. The production and distribution of new water is also a core component of the country’s national water management plan, which in 2017 will see its first year of implementation. Moreover, the government is keen to strengthen efforts to harvest rainwater on the islands. Taking Malta's ancient houses as an example, the government has made it a point to enforce the requirement of a reservoir for rainwater in all newly built properties. However, with a growing economy, the island is aware that it needs to attract further investment to meet its water challenge and find ways to make more efficient use of water.

A Step Further

There are a number of successful models around the world that Malta could emulate. Countries like Israel, Singapore and Saudi Arabia have been investing in new technologies to improve their water supply system. Israel in particular is today home to water-tech companies offering a whole suite of solutions for desalination, water reclamation, water engineering, water safety and water quality. They have helped the country, which for a long time had to import water, to become fully self-reliant for its water needs and even be able to sell any excess to their neighbours. Saudi Arabia has become a leader in desalination with their latest technology being a desalination plant powered by solar energy. Plans are that by 2019 all desalination plants in Saudi Arabia start making use of solar technology. Singapore on the other hand consumes 400 million gallons of water daily. Nonetheless, the country has been adopting one of the world's most successful strategies by utilising four national taps flowing from desalinated sea water, recycled wastewater, water collected from rainfall as well as the imported supply from Malaysia.

Future Opportunities 

Global Water Intelligence has estimated the global water market to be worth US$862 billion. Investors from around the world are now paying more attention to the water tech sector as new companies and start-ups are experimenting and developing new solutions at a rapid pace. Recognising the complex and evolving challenges to its water supply and system, Malta has an opportunity to adopt innovative technologies in partnership with the private sector. Companies have already developed various methods for efficient rainwater harvesting as well as for the recycling and reusing of grey-water – wastewater generated from showers, washbasins and washing machines – and even black water from the flushing of toilets.

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