Malta is one of the driest countries on the planet, having only 188 metres cubed of fresh water per inhabitant. With no sizeable freshwater lakes or streams, almost the absolute entirely of this figure is found below ground in aquifers – layers of permeable rocks that can absorb water.
Historically, winter rainwater would recharge the aquifers as they were depleted throughout the year, but lower levels of rainfall in recent years coupled with a rising population and an increase of paved surfaces that hinder water absorption have all come together to make the situation particularly perilous.
And while current estimates place the sustainable amount of groundwater extracted to be around 23 million cubic meters, the Water Services Corporation extracts closer to 34 million cubic meters. An unknown amount is further illegally harvested through private boreholes.
More soberingly, around 15% of all water produced by the Water Services Corporation is lost through leakages in the underground distribution network. Malta’s water reserves also face danger from other industries; the overuse of fertiliser by farmers for instance has been steadily increasing the water’s nitrate content. In 2004, the Malta Resources Authority estimated that the average nitrogen content per hectare varied between 151 to 227 kilograms per hectare, despite the EU stipulated value of 170 kilograms per hectare.
In fact, 15 out of the 16 water extraction sources in the archipelago are listed as being at risk of contamination. The only current alternative to extracting groundwater is to distil seawater through Malta’s reverse osmosis plants – an energy intensive process that currently consumes around 5% of all the electricity generated by Enemalta.
The increased dependence on reverse osmosis would inevitably see water prices go up across the board, affecting numerous spheres of business that are even only tangentially linked to water use. It would also mean that Malta’s water supply is at the mercy of the island having electricity, and clean sea water, a bet that might not be wise considering the Malta-Sicily channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.