COVID 19

Resiliency in water and wastewater resources: can we withstand a pandemic?

Guest Speakers

Mr Manuel Sapiano – CEO at the Energy & Water Agency

Ing Marco Cremona

Dr Kevin Gatt - Faculty for the built environment, University of Malta

This webinar was part of the online event "Shaping Malta's Future: The New Norm" which was held in July 2020. 

 

A brief overview of how the Maltese water system stores and supplies water for domestic and commercial use.

Engineer Cremona noted that Malta has a high population density, leading to a high-water consumption. He also pointed out the semi-arid climate and high evaporation rates that Malta faces. However, Malta has got an extensive groundwater system which yields considerable amounts of fresh water. In the mid-late 1970s, Malta experienced a water supply crisis. Having said that, both tourism and the population were increasing drastically, leading to higher water demand. This led the country to invest in reverse osmosis, as a means of converting sea water to fresh water. In fact, Malta’s tap water is made up of 60% reverse osmosis water and 40% groundwater. Moreover, Malta is in a situation where less groundwater is replenished when compared to the amount that is consumed.

 

How precarious is the situation with the supply of water in Malta?

The supply of water refers to the water received in homes, offices, etc. In this case, Malta has enough production capacity to meet the demand due to the various alternative water supplies. These include a water desalination plant, namely reverse osmosis technology, and the recent introduction of reclaimed water, i.e. treated wastewater. Nonetheless, sustainability needs to be pursued when using such systems. For example, leakage management is nowadays practiced to reduce the amount of water leaking from distribution pipes.

 

Hygiene was vastly promoted during COVID-19. How did this affect water consumption rates?

Health authorities urged society to wash their hands often. This is however a minor consumption when compared to flushing and showering. During the pandemic, a shift in activities was noted as less water was consumed in offices while more water was consumed in homes. Therefore, the Health Authority requirements did not affect water demand significantly. On the other hand, by spending more time at home, people engaged in activities which they would not often carry out, such as washing their cars and growing plants, resulting in a higher-water consumption.

 

The implications of COVID-19 on wastewater in Malta

Samples of wastewater were collected to test for genetic material from COVID-19, to identify where and to what extent COVID-19 was present in the population. Despite this, no infections of COVID-19 were attributed to the reuse of wastewater. Thus, wastewater was not a carrier of the virus. This occurred due to the seclusion of wastewater, apart from the disinfecting process.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sustainability of water infrastructure is imperative as it increases resilience to climate, health, and food shocks. How can this sustainability be enhanced?

Dr Gatt defined sustainability as a holistic approach to decision making, that tries to maximise social, economic and environmental goals. He also demonstrated how resilience is the ability to withstand social, economic and environmental shocks. COVID-19 tested these pillars, with only the environment being the true winner. This is due to the improvement in air quality and a decrease in the demand for water.

Climate change is the result of anthropogenic effects. In terms of water resources, this brings more periods of drought, leading to a reduction in the amount of rainfall needed to conduct certain activities. We are also expected to experience more intense storms. This means that pervious areas will be saturated more quickly and hence, less water recharging to our groundwater aquifers. This also brings a rise in the sea-level, which would decrease the volume of groundwater that can be stored. These threats should make us want to take a more water-centric approach.

COVID-19 led to the closure of ports and airports which in turn led to the restriction of imports including food. Food is directly related to water consumption for the cultivation of crops. With cultivation land and water supply being under pressure, new forms of cultivation need to be sought. Dr Gatt mentioned the introduction of vertical farms which can intensify the use of our land. Additionally, the cultivation of drought-tolerant crops must be promoted to complement our water resources. Dr Gatt further mentioned the use of treated sewage that can be used as a substitute for ground water in agriculture.

Furthermore, green, and blue infrastructure must be developed. These infrastructures are based on mimicking nature to redress environmental damage. This leads to a mindset of water-centric developments which means that buildings must be encouraged to promote water efficiency. Such projects are being undertaken in Mosta, Hamrun and Qormi.

Additionally, the Water Catchment Management Plan explores the use of reverse osmosis technology whereby the waste from the desalination process can be pumped back to the seawater aquifer to avoid salinization of the freshwater aquifer.  Nonetheless, desalination methods must not be depended on due to their high carbon footprint. He also notes disadvantages tied with oil spills and prolonged electricity cuts.

 

How did COVID-19 affect the various industries, such as the hospitality sector, in terms of water?

This sector was the worst hit since the airport was closed and thus no tourists were coming to Malta. The water demand in the hospitality sector was lower than usual, as hotels only consumed water for either landscaping or maintenance purposes.

In Malta, the large hotels near the coast invested in their own desalination units. Therefore, this huge reduction in water demand did not impact the demand from the Water Services Corporation (WSC). On the other hand, smaller hotels get their water supply by bowser. From a groundwater supply point of view, this was extremely positive, due to the huge reduction in demand. One should also note that ancillary services, such as commercial laundries were also impacted. Similarly, there was also an impact in bottling production. This was mainly due to the shift of people working from home. The closure of gyms and reduction of car use also played a significant role in reducing water demand.

 

What is the effect on companies providing water equipment and technologies in view of a reduction in capital expenditure on water solutions?

The investment in water infrastructure in the private sector was low for several reasons. Commercial entities do not get their water from the WSC, but from private boreholes for which they do not pay any fee. Expenses incurred by a factory using lots of water is very low when compared to electricity, proportionally. Hence, the incentive to invest in electricity-saving devices is higher than investing in water conservation or water recycling.

 

Strengthening water security and reliability from both a business and domestic perspective

COVID-19 revealed the resilience of our water supply system. The WSC managed to maintain a steady supply of water during the pandemic. Their main concern was water management. In fact, one of the main measures undertaken in response to the pandemic was the management of the people working in the water management sector. Another measure undertaken was the increased care in the disinfection of the water. As a result, Mr Sapiano stated that COVID-19 portrayed the need for modernisation in this aspect to further ensure water resilience.

 

“Water be the change”- a national conservation campaign launched in 2019

This campaign focuses on water demand. It draws importance to the individual’s basic daily habits. Most of the water-saving measures can be easily done by the layman during his daily activities such as closing the tap when it is not being used.