Use of Highly Polished Reclaimed Water in the Maltese Islands: “New Water”


General information:

Island (Region, Province, Country):
Islands of Malta, Europe

Population: 437,000

Budget / cost of the project:
35 Million Euro

Project objectives:
Malta is a semi-arid country located in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. The scarcity of water has always been an issue since documented history and meeting the demand for both municipal water supply as well as the needs of the agricultural and commercial sectors has always provided an im-portant challenge. However this challenge has also provided Malta with an opportunity to diversify and further develop its water supply infrastructure. This can be highlighted by the introduction of sea-water desalination technology in the 1980’s, and the continued improvement of the operational efficiency of these desali-nation plants. Today, sea-water desalination reliably provides around 60% of the municipal water sup-ply, and has therefore become an important water resource to ensure the sustainability of Malta’s wa-ter supply. Malta’s 2nd River Basin Management Plan (RBMP) highlights the need for the further broadening of the islands’ water resource base, in particular through new investments in non-conventional water re-sources. From a strategic perspective the 2nd RBMP highlights the importance for the development of alternative water supplies which can be used by the agricultural sector, thereby diversifying the water resource base of this sector, which is overly dependent on groundwater. This would not only reduce the dependency of this sector on groundwater (hence lowering groundwater abstraction levels) but also increase the resiliency of the agricultural sector during periods of water scarcity and drought. An increased resilient agriculture sector can also attract increased investments hence ensuring the further development of the sector, which is important for the food security of the islands. WSC’s New Water project puts the requirements of the 2nd RBMP in practice. The New Water pro-gramme will see the development of an annual production capacity of 7 million m3 of high quality wa-ter suitable for safe crop irrigation. The project will hence have the capacity to potentially address up to 35% of the current total water demand of the agricultural sector. The New Water project is thus one of the key measures under Malta’s Programme of Measures intended to enable the achievement of good groundwater quantitative status in all groundwater bodies in the Maltese islands by 2021. In addition, the high quality of the New Water can enable its use for landscaping and industry, further enabling the use of this water during periods of low demand by the agricultural sector.

Project description of activities and specific interventions:

First intervention
The project which is now well underway involved the development of three water polishing plants which upgrade the quality of treated water from the islands’ three Urban Wastewater Treatment Plants (UWWTPs) to irrigation standards. The three polishing are located within the footprint of the UWWTPs in Gozo, the North of Malta and the south of Malta.
Each of the three polishing plants houses a sequential treatment system, where the treated effluent passes through three additional ‘barriers’ – an ultra-filtration (UF) step, a low pressure reverse osmosis (membrane) step and an advanced oxidation stage

Second intervention
The New Water project also includes the development of a dedicated distribution network to supply new water close to the point of use. The distribution network includes three main aspects:
– the development of a piped network,
– the development and/or rehabilitation of distribution reservoirs, and
– the introduction of automated water dispensing points in agricultural areas.
The distribution network will in totality includes 60 km of pipes which will cover an agricultural area of 1,200 hectares.
The distribution of water occurs through a number of dedicated water distribution points located in the rural road network. To access the distribution points, farmers have to apply with the Water Services Corporation. Farmers are then given a remote access key, which includes a fixed annual water allocation. To ensure the efficient use of this water, a rising block tariff mechanism has been established wherein a higher tariff is applied should farmers use a volume of water exceeding the annual water allocation.

The third intervention
The third intervention of the project consists of an extensive stakeholder engagement programme targeting the project’s primary and secondary consumers. This engagement programme has ensured a high level of acceptability of new water by the agricultural sector. In fact, water use levels are continually increasing, with new farmers applying with the Corporation for access to the New Water distribution system.

Public outreach, education and awareness efforts and results:

Water reuse was introduced in Malta in the mid-1980’s where treated water from the first wastewater treatment plant was directed for agriculture in the south of Malta following tertiary treatment (disinfection). Due to the relatively high salinity of wastewater in the Maltese islands and the early treatment technology then applied in this plant, the quality of the treated waters was far from optimal. In fact farming produce irrigated with this treated water was often labelled as Inferior with a short shelf life when compared to the crops irrigated with abstracted groundwater.

Hence the New Water project starts from a disadvantaged situation, due to the negative perception on treated waters generated from the historical use of such waters from this old treatment plant.
Therefore, WSC embarked on an extensive engagement programme with farmers providing information and data on the quality and the treatment systems being used in the New Water project.

These information meeting were undertaken with the cooperation of farmers organizations and local authorities, thus ensuring a high engagement of civil society. In addition, outreach programmes to consumers are also being undertaking highlighting the quality of New Water and its safe use for the in-tended applications.

Furthermore the WSC is also engaging with academia, particularly the agricultural college of the Malta College for Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) enabling students to study the quality of crops irrigated with New Water. Farmers are invited to visit these study sites and engage with the students so as to also have first hand experience on the application of New Water for irrigation.

The engagement programmes of the Corporation are thus intended to gain the trust of the farming community and also their eventual consumers, that New Water is a safe product to use.

Economic value added and how calculated:

The economic value added of the project is to be placed within the context that Malta is one of the most highly stressed countries in the world in terms of the Water Exploitation Index, which stood at over 46% in 2014. Rainfall averages at 550mm per year concentrated in a few months, a small land surface and catchment area, the irregular and inadequate topographic relief and the characteristics of the aquifers. These are compounded by an increasing population and economic growth, which can be expected to intensify over future years.

Potable water production amounted to 32 million cubic meters in 2016, of which close to 60 % was produced through desalinated seawater, with the remainder sourced from groundwater. Ground-water also serves a significant part of the requirements of the agricultural sector. The production of highly polished recycled water, with an annual capacity of 7 million cubic meters which commenced in mid-2017, intended for agriculture, landscaping and industrial applications is expected to provide the following benefits:

  • a reduction in the demand for expensive and energy-intensive desalinated water, thus contributing to cost-effectiveness and climate change mitigation;
  • lower pressures on groundwater abstraction, thus conserving the resource for future generations, safeguarding Malta’s small but ecologically important natural ecosystems, and contributing to Malta’s climate change adaptation efforts;
  • compensating for the small proportion of scarce rainwater that is harvested, contributing to the attainment of the benefits of a circular economy;
  • new and cost-effective water resource to sustain agriculture, which in Malta is mainly of an artisanal nature and contributes to the preservation of landscape and land resources, while shortening the food supply chain to the consumer.

A total economic cost saving of €2.1 million p/a is expected through the project, mainly on ac-count of reductions in the financial cost of energy and consumables. This furthermore includes an externality cost saving of €1.6 million p/a arising from the reduction in carbon emissions from a saving of almost 24 million kwh of energy used per year – equivalent to around 950,000 tonnes of carbon.

Ecological and social project outcomes:

The New Water project is a key feature of WSC’s policy of becoming a Net Zero Impact Utility. Under this policy, WSC aims to contribute back an equivalent volume of water to the environment to the volume of groundwater abstracted by the Corporation for municipal supply purposes. The New Water project offers an opportunity for:

  1. the substitution of the water supply of the agricultural sector from groundwater to new water, thus reducing the groundwater abstraction of the agricultural sector, and
  2. the undertaking of managed aquifer recharge initiatives enabling increased recharge to the aquifer systems during periods of low demand by the agricultural sector.

In so doing, the New Water project is a key component of Malta’s programme of measures under the 2nd RBMP for achieving the good quantitative status environmental objectives of the EU’s Water Framework Directive.

The expected social outcomes from the project are multi-faceted. The direct and immediate beneficiaries are logically the farmers and the quality of their crops, however the use of ‘New Water’ will surely also have a long term ripple effect. For instance, the public will benefit from:

  • A higher quality of crops and fruits without worries of what kind of water was used for irrigation
  • A higher quality in the potable water due to the reduction of abstraction from the water table and the impact of eventual MAR schemes with New Water
  • Lower resultant emissions of the water production process
  • A greener environment through the potential use of New Water for urban landscaping initiatives