Malta Diary Water, water everywhere – but must have precious drops to drink
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Wheat for bread and as a basic foodstuff, olives for precious oil for consumption and as a source of fuel to provide light, and grapes to produce wine, have always been regarded as Malta and Gozo’s most precious elements – or technically speaking, compounds, all as foodstuffs but also trading elements for the continual incursion of foreign vessels.
However, there is one more than precious compound that supersedes these entire elements put together – and that is water, precious water.
The Maltese Islands are plonked in the very centre of the Mediterranean Sea, not so distant from the North African coast and thus not so far from the vastness of the Sahara Desert and its great aridity. The Islands have suffered periods of extreme drought with water being restricted and rationed, with agriculture suffering and ultimately leading to local pilgrimages and prayers for rain.
The average rainfall hovers at 55 centimetres annually (the equivalent of 22 inches) and thus vastly insufficient for the needs of a population that has grown and grown over the centuries while underscored by a growing awareness over the years for better sanitary and washing facilities.
Thankfully the landmass of the Islands is manly soft limestone that quickly absorbs every precious drop of water. This is underlain by layers of hard limestone and thus precious natural catchments preserved the precious liquid which then had to be drawn out – before the invention of wind, water pumps.
Fortunately too, the Islands are pockmarked by valleys to further retain the waters but before the construction of surface stone reservoir catchments this drained into the sea, together with the erosion of precious soil.
The massive contrast is that although the Islands are circled by vast volumes of non-potable sea water, the potable land water was and is precious in every drop.
Human resource stepped in to balance the situation and preserve the precious liquid. From Neolithic times, community and individual wells were constructed and the water drawn in receptacles suspended by rope or strong plant lichens. Much later poor donkeys were utilised to be blindfolded, attached to a wooden bar embedded in grindstones and prompted to circle all day to draw up the water.
The invention of the American-style wind pump brought an end to all this.
In the interim, human initiative and invention provided other resources. Underground reservoirs were created; farmers constructed their own reservoirs in their fields and later, overhead aqueducts came into being to transport water from one locality to another.
When Malta’s capital city was created in the late 1500s the construction of such an aqueduct was inevitable, an aqueduct that stretched all the way from Rabat to the Valletta outskirts. In Gozo too, a similar aqueduct was constructed just outside the capital Victoria (also known as Rabat).
Washer-wells were constructed to enable housewives to do their daily clothes washing, notably at Msida in Malta and Fontana in Gozo. These also provided an employment outlet for washer-women to wash clothes and earn money for doing so. These structures still exist today as well as lengthy stretches of aqueducts and these are now heritage protected.
Up to the late 1950s a number of households had no running water facilities and communal pumps were on every street corner and drew daily long queues. My maternal grandfather had a deep well in the backyard and would daily draw up buckets of water for general washing and the washing of clothes.
To cure my curiosity of when in the yard unattended I would open the well cover and peer down and possibly plunge to my death he invented that a horrible evil spirit in the form of a giant eel inhabited the bottom of the well and was always ready to spring up and swallow small boys!
One of the larger constructed reservoirs is at Ta’ Qali – still very much in use today to supply the central areas of Malta, but there are other smaller ones dotted around the Islands.
By the 1970s the provision of water to supply all needs had become a grave problem underscored by a growing population and greater awareness of sanitary needs. The Government of the day came up with a life-saving solution in line with growing technology – reverse osmosis whereby seawater is inducted and chemically treated to produce a flow of potable water.
Major plants were constructed at Pembroke in Malta and Ħondoq ir-Rummien in Gozo and these very much still play a major role today. In recent years an underground tunnel has been created to convey water from Pembroke to the Ta’ Qali Reservoir.
With the arrival of the British, over 120 years ago a catchment descending four storeys was created at Luqa, a vast reservoir enabling the containment of 45 million litres of water. Unfortunately up to six years ago this had been completed neglected and become bone dry but now works by the Water Services Corporation are in hand to renew its function and increase its capacity.
This is so magnificent in construction it has now been classed as an “underground Cathedral”. The scope was to provide a water flow to the then Dockyard areas in Cottonera. Some years ago while spending almost a year in Melbourne, Australia, I read in an Australian journal that the central Mediterranean region is destined to become a desert region. This has been hastened by speedy climate changes.
Currently, continuous campaigns are underway to create awareness of water preservation and the judicious use of water resource while sanitary water treatment plants work to provide water that is not potable but is suitable for irrigation and the filling of swimming pools.
The fight of human resource and human initiative is ongoing to limit the negative results of natural elements – sped on by the carelessness of humanity over the centuries.
“He can’t sit still on his ass for a moment”
An expression of exasperation describing a person who is constantly fidgeting, moving about and not letting things be.