Island Economy

The Maltese make every drop of water count

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[sound of crashing waves]

Harry Goldstein: On the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, IBM is building the world's first smart grid, to govern the use of electricity and water. The grid will use smart meters and a central monitoring system to help the electric and water utilities detect losses, pinpoint defective meters, and save both water and electricity.

Harry Goldstein: I'm Harry Goldstein, and I came to Malta to explore how some people and businesses on these parched islands have found simple ways to save water.

Marco Cremona: Okay, this is the cistern. And in that—that wooden box is a pump which pumps water from the cistern to a roof tank.

Harry Goldstein: Marco Cremona shows me around his house in Mosta, a town in the center of the main island. A 16th-century law issued by the Knights of Saint John requires every Maltese house to collect rainwater in a cistern dug into the limestone bedrock under the house. Cremona, a water engineer and conservation advocate, has outfitted his 500-year-old house to be completely self-sufficient in water use.

Marco Cremona: And then from the roof tank, it is passed through an ultraviolet disinfection system which sterilizes all the water getting out of the roof tank and which is then delivered to showers, washing basins, washing machine, etc., etc.

Harry Goldstein: The water goes through a small microfilter before it's used for drinking or cooking. Cremona also has a recycling system that filters water from the showers, washbasins, and the washing machine and uses it for flushing and gardening.

Marco Cremona: I mean, most people would say that I've shifted the water problem onto the energy problem because I run a couple of pumps.

Harry Goldstein: Let's say that the family's daily consumption—including water for the dog—is about 100 liters per day. If it's a 40-liter-a-minute pump, that's two or three minutes of 300 watts, which is negligible in kilowatt-hours.

Marco Cremona: I mean, like you've seen, it's basic components. It's plastic boxes. It's gravel. It's a couple of small pumps. So it's not really costly.

Harry Goldstein: The setup cost about a thousand dollars and uses minimal electricity. But Cremona doesn't think everyone needs to install the entire system. Just collecting rainwater for toilets and washing machines can cut down water use by at least 40 percent.
Every liter of water counts on this seven-island nation. Malta gets little rain in five months of winter. Roughly a third of the country's water is produced by squeezing salt out of seawater. Another half is pumped from underground aquifers that are shrinking. Both desalination and pumping require energy. So people here face a choice: Pay higher prices for utilities or conserve resources. Joseph Cilia, an engineering professor at the University of Malta started by analyzing his own family's water consumption. He was startled to find that they were flushing away 40 to 60 percent of their water.

Joseph Cilia: And it's ridiculous that you use drinkable water to flush the toilet away.

Harry Goldstein: Cilia placed the water tanks of his toilets three meters above the bowls to take advantage of gravity.

Joseph Cilia: And this saved enormously. I mean, I saw drastically a huge drop, about 40 percent in my water bill. So there are ways and means. And for example, if you have a well and you pump the water in a tank, and then you use this for the flushing, you are also not using drinkable water.

Harry Goldstein: Cilia says the idea of conservation is catching on because of higher prices. But water and electricity theft is also common. IBM is now installing smart water and electricity meters all over the country that will make it easy to detect theft and leakages. Cilia has helped develop a solution for one of the biggest sources of water leakage: the ball valves that control water flow into rooftop tanks seen on all Maltese houses. Water trickles through these valves even when a tank is full, and the overflow goes down the drain.

Joseph Cilia: So one of the things we helped, there was a company in Malta that developed a valve, it is now internationally patented, which basically toggles. Either it's on or it's off. And it uses the pressure of the water to close the valve. It's like a power break basically, where you are using the pressure.

Harry Goldstein: Cilia says people are starting to adopt the new valves. That would save water and save Malta's water utility a lot of money.

Stephen Galea St. John: We are talking about 12 percent of our production.

Harry Goldstein: Stephen Galea St. John is the chief operations officer at the water utility.

Stephen Galea St. John: It's a pretty high percentage that is actually going into the customer's house, but we're not getting paid for it because the meter is not recognizing it.

Harry Goldstein: The utility is saving large amounts of water just by controlling leaks in their distribution network. In 1998, they lost 14 million cubic meters of water through leaks. They've brought it down to under 4 million. Here's how: They divided the country into zones so they could find out where the leaks were. They moved quickly to repair leaks effectively and replace weak pipe work. And they alleviated the excess pressure that causes bursts. Those are all simple measures. Water engineer Cremona thinks you don't need high-tech solutions to save water.

Marco Cremona: I mean it's simple, smart ideas, to a sense, without using too much technology, because too much technology would then make it prohibitively expensive. And then it's of no interest to anybody to implement these things.

Harry Goldstein: I'm Harry Goldstein.

To Probe Further

Check out the rest of the special report: Water vs Energy.