Ta’ Barkat farmers left without water as problems with ‘new water’ facility persist

‘New Water’ plant promised to deliver ample clean water but farmers say water is scarce and of poor quality

“The boreholes are now dry and I don’t have any water for the crops. I got a water bowser, as suggested by the authorities, but I’m not even using it, as there is no water.” Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday
“The boreholes are now dry and I don’t have any water for the crops. I got a water bowser, as suggested by the authorities, but I’m not even using it, as there is no water.” Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday

Farmers whose living depends on the fields they work in the Ta’ Barkat area in Xgħajra have been left frustrated after promises of a steady supply of high quality water for their crops, did not materialise.

In 2018, a third “New Water” polishing plant was inaugurated in the Ta’ Barkat area – a waste-water treatment plant where filtered waste water undergoes a sophisticated polishing filtration that turns it into pure water for use in agriculture, industry and landscaping.

Farmers in the area said that up until four years ago, the would collect rainwater in their reservoirs, which now had turned bone dry. Francis, one of the farmers who spoke to MaltaToday, said he made use of boreholes that collected water from a valley close by – but things changed since works were carried out on the reservoirs. “The boreholes are now dry and I don’t have any water for the crops. I got a water bowser, as suggested by the authorities, but I’m not even using it, as there is no water.”

Photo: James Bianchi
Photo: James Bianchi

The farmers claim that before the New Water plant was built, they had an abundant water supply in the reservoirs. “The water was not of great quality, but we had enough. However, the current situation is disastrous. Everyone is taking us for fools. You phone here, you phone there and no one helps. We are in a dire situation.”

Francis says the little water he manages to reserve is used for his strawberries. “Right now, I’m relying on rain water but when it stops, I’m not able to carry out any work. Strawberries require good water and I can’t use water purchased from water bowser services.”

One farmer said he lost half of his strawberry crop even after using the new water from the Ta’ Barkat.

Suspicious of the quality of the water, he had it tested on 22 June 2021 with a conductivity sensor, finding it to have 5.14 parts per thousand (ppt) salinity. Another test on 9 July 2021 found 1.41 ppt. The standard salinity of freshwater is right around 0.5ppt or lower – far lower than the levels found during these tests.

“We expected some hiccups when the plant opened in 2018, but we never imagined such a situation,” another farmer, Michael, said.

“The reservoirs were always filled with water before, which we used to collect ourselves. When they carried out works on the reservoirs, they started distributing water directly to us farmers. It’s not an efficient system, as most of the time the water was supplied at night, when we want to rest like everyone else.”

Reservoirs promised by 2020 never materialised, except for the distribution networks for ne water. “Despite the promises, nowadays we are not even getting water from the plant directly.”

He said they are still paying €25 for the water annually, even though they are barely getting any. “If I had paid the €25 for a bowser of water, I would have at least got something in return. Instead I got nothing.”

The farmers say their pleas to the energy and agricultural ministries, and the Water Services Corporation, have so far proved fruitless.

The Nationalist Party’s spokesperson Peter Agius met the farmers as well. “The canals that are supposed to deliver EU-funded water, are dry,” Agius said. “This investment is essential for Malta, however it is useless to spend millions, if there is no political will to deliver results. There are parts in Malta where the New Water system is working but this is definitely not the case in Żabbar.”

The New Water programme is part-financed by the European Union and provides up to 35% of current total water demand for agriculture. The Ta’ Barkat plant produces 7 billion litres of new water annually, with a €20 million network distributing the water to the fields at subsidised rates of €25 a year.

Malcolm Borg, the coordinator of Għaqda Bdiewa Attivi, said he is aware of the situation, calling the New Water project a “victim of its success”.

“Without it the farmers would be solely dependent on water from boreholes, which is of a minor quality in comparison to the treated one from the plant,” Borg said.

“Farmers require this type of water but they can’t work well with the current volatile supply. They are currently in limbo as the supply is never steady and it fluctuates.”

Borg said that after millions spent on the plants, it was crucial to maximise those benefits. “A farmer has to plan four to five months in advance. Should there be no water for them, they would not be able to proceed with their original plans.”

The Water Services Corporation is aware of the problem, saying final testing of the Barkat-Sant Antnin connection means new water is being pumped outside the infrastructure.

“We understand this temporary inconvenience, but these wet commissioning tests at St Antnin are critical in our plans to improve new water production in the south,” spokesperson Pablo Micallef said.

“We expect normal production of new water to resume towards the end of this month whilst assuring users that water pumped outside our infrastructure is rigorously tested to meet stringent applicable quality parameters.”

Micallef urged farmers to contact the WSC helpline, for investigations to be carried out. “Until we finalise a closed, secure, new water dispensing system, we cannot exclude third party contamination issues, which is why our reservoirs are being roofed and secured,” Micallef said.

The reservoirs are also EU-funded and will form part of a state-of-the-art New Water closed-controlled network, covering over 40km with 200 intelligent-access dispensers.