Rain­wa­ter: the cost of in­com­pe­tence

In his lat­est Bud­get speech, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Ed­ward Sci­cluna in­formed us that more stud­ies will be carried out to iden­tify flood­ing risks, si­mul­ta­ne­ously seek­ing to max­imise the use of rain­wa­ter.

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - NEWS -

Ed­ward Sci­cluna is aware that, as a re­sult of cli­mate change, storms are more in­tense than ever. When it rains, it pours, and our in­fra­struc­ture is not ca­pa­ble of han­dling the re­sult­ing rain­wa­ter. To add to the im­pact of cli­mate change, we also have to deal with the risks cre­ated as a di­rect re­sult of in­com­pe­tent reg­u­la­tors.

For the past 138 years, leg­is­la­tion in Malta has specif­i­cally pro­vided for the con­struc­tion of wa­ter cis­terns in build­ings, pri­mar­ily res­i­den­tial ones. The di­men­sions of th­ese wa­ter cis­terns var­ied over time. Orig­i­nally, they were re­lated to the floor area of the res­i­dence but in the re­cent past, the re­quired vol­ume was re­duced to be re­lated to the foot­print of the build­ing.

Th­ese reg­u­la­tory pro­vi­sions are, how­ever, more hon­oured in the breach, even when re­duced. This is not a re­cent phe­nom­e­non. Reg­u­la­tory con­trol in Malta has been in steep de­cline since the build­ing boom of the 1960s. I re­mem­ber, while I was still a stu­dent – many moons ago – leaf­ing through a UN ex­pert-fi­nanced re­port penned in the late 1960s which, even then, had mea­sured the sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in foul wa­ter in our sew­ers dur­ing in­tense rain­fall, clearly in­di­cat­ing that too much rain­wa­ter was go­ing to waste not­with­stand­ing the col­lec­tion obli­ga­tions. The sit­u­a­tion has not im­proved since!

In­stead of be­ing col­lected in rain­wa­ter cis­terns, in an ev­er­in­creas­ing num­ber of cases rain­wa­ter is dis­charged di­rectly onto our roads or into the pub­lic sew­ers. Large vol­umes of rain­wa­ter, which can be used for var­i­ous pur­poses, are be­ing wasted. Its use do­mes­ti­cally could sub­stan­tially re­duce wa­ter bills.

When rain­wa­ter is dis­charged into our pub­lic sew­ers, not only does the wa­ter over­flow onto our streets, but it also in­creases the costs of sewage pu­rifi­ca­tion un­nec­es­sar­ily. The ma­jor cul­prits are a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the de­vel­op­ers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. The govern­ment, both di­rectly as well as through its agen­cies, has also (in the re­cent past) been re­spon­si­ble for the de­vel­op­ment of hous­ing es­tates with­out pro­vid­ing for the col­lec­tion of rain­wa­ter.

In par­tic­u­lar, it is com­mon knowl­edge that in cases where base­ment or semi-base­ment garages are con­structed, the duty to pro­vide for the col­lec­tion of rain­wa­ter is very rarely com­plied with. The Plan­ning Au­thor­ity (PA) is re­spon­si­ble for de­ter­min­ing and en­sur­ing the ob­ser­vance of the con­di­tions of de­vel­op­ment per­mits which, in most cases, spec­ify the re­quired ca­pac­ity of a rain­wa­ter cis­tern.

Over the years, the Wa­ter Ser­vices Cor­po­ra­tion (WSC) has taken over re­spon­si­bil­ity for the man­age­ment of the pub­lic sew­ers from the for­mer Drainage De­part­ment. This re­spon­si­bil­ity in­cludes au­tho­ris­ing the own­ers of newly-con­structed prop­er­ties to con­nect the drains with the pub­lic sewer. Is the WSC ver­i­fy­ing that it is only the drains that are con­nected and, in par­tic­u­lar, that rain­wa­ter pipes are not con­nected to the pub­lic sewer as well? The ob­vi­ous an­swer is pro­vided by our streets on a rainy day. Clearly, no one is both­er­ing to check what is con­nected to the pub­lic sewer.

This leads to the con­clu­sion that, while the cul­prit for the present state of af­fairs is the build­ing in­dus­try be­cause, more of­ten than not, it does not pro­vide for rain­wa­ter stor­age in new de­vel­op­ments, it is not the only one to blame. The au­thor­i­ties and govern­ment de­part­ments must take a sub­stan­tial share of the blame for not com­ply­ing with their reg­u­la­tory re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. The PA and the WSC could have stopped the abuse, but they did not.

A num­ber of ar­eas are prac­ti­cally out of bounds when­ever heavy or con­tin­u­ous rain hits the Mal­tese Is­lands. This is a source of dan­ger and, in fact, the Civil Pro­tec­tion De­part­ment is heav­ily in­volved in as­sist­ing res­i­dents or mo­torists who are trapped as a re­sult of flood­ing.

Money made avail­able by the EU has been used to fund a project for the con­struc­tion of un­der­ground tun­nels, as a re­sult of which rain­wa­ter from our streets and roads is be­ing col­lected and dis­charged into the sea. Pub­lic funds have been used to cover up pri­vate ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties.

The EU funds used in the con­struc­tion of th­ese tun­nels have been used to squan­der a very pre­cious re­source. Euro­pean tax­pay­ers’ money has also been flushed down the drain. This money could have been put to a much bet­ter use had it been ap­plied to ad­dress the lack of ad­e­quate rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing in our towns and vil­lages.

My ad­vice to Ed­ward Sci­cluna is that be­fore wast­ing any more pub­lic funds he should en­sure that the Plan­ning Au­thor­ity and the Wa­ter Ser­vices Cor­po­ra­tion carry out their reg­u­la­tory re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. When they do, a con­sid­er­able part of the prob­lem of the flood­ing of our streets will dis­ap­pear.

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