Rainwater: the cost of incompetence – Carmel Cacopardo

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.

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 ever-increasing number of cases rainwater is discharged directly onto our roads or into the public sewers. Large volumes of rainwater, which can be utilised 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 too? 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 utilised in the construction of these tunnels have been used to squander a very precious resource. European taxpayers’ money has also have been flushed down the drain. This 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.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – Sunday 4 November 2018