Tap water: can you – and will you – drink it?

To improve the taste of Malta’s tap water, the WSC is investing in AI technology to maximise its blending potential of desalinated water and groundwater.

Visit any supermarket parking lot and you will undoubtedly come across many shoppers handling six-packs of plastic water bottles. Our habit of purchasing bottled water is so prevalent that there is a whole scheme related to the return of these bottles and other beverage containers.

Yet, Malta’s tap water is completely suitable and safe to drink, having consistently passed stringent local and international quality checks.

Where does Malta’s tap water come from?

First things first: potable water in Malta is a blend of groundwater – abstracted from the water table through pumping stations and boreholes – and desalinated water produced by the country’s four reverse osmosis (RO) plants in Pembroke, Għar Lapsi, Ċirkewwa, and Ħondoq, Gozo.

Desalinated water is blended with groundwater in the various reservoirs across the islands, where chlorine is then added before it is distributed for consumption.

Most of us will purchase bottled water locally, but drink tap water freely when they visit the rest of Europe even though Malta’s tap water is fully compliant with the European Drinking Water Directive and local legislations.

Of course, each country has a level of uniqueness regarding the sourcing and processing of water to provide drinking water. What we should never take for granted is Malta’s achievement in terms of the fact that its potable water is free from micro-organisms, especially when compared to the situation in other warm countries, such as on our neighbouring African continent.

It’s good quality water

We asked representatives from the Water Services Corporation (WSC) about the quality testing procedures and standards used to determine whether Malta’s tap water is safe for drinking.  It transpires that tap water in Malta is very rigorously tested and monitored by the WSC’s Quality Control section, from the production stage to distribution.

The Corporation carries out around 15,000 tests in more than 100 locations around Malta and Gozo every year. The WSC lab is accredited to the ISO 17025 standard, which ensures that it is always able to maintain a very high standard of testing. All water quality test data is available publicly online.

Apart from ensuring compliance with European legal requirements, regular process monitoring tests are performed weekly and monthly to ensure processes observe the required limits. In addition, regular tests on the potable water we produce are also performed by the Superintendence of Public Health.

But can you really drink tap water in Malta?

The Corporation’s answer is clear: “WSC can guarantee that the tap water delivered up to the doorstep of consumers is safe to drink”.  

There’s a caveat to that, though: only the water coming straight from the WSC service connection (usually directed to the kitchen sink) is guaranteed by WSC to be safe. Water stored in roof-top tanks should not be taken as, while its chlorine content still likely keeps it safe, warm temperatures can promote the growth of harmful microbiological agents such as bacteria and thus create a potential risk. Roof-top tank water should only be used for activities such as showering, flushing, laundry, floors etc.

When it comes to the water coming straight from the WSC service, the Corporation has a water safety plan and a modern system of data monitoring and analysis.  In case of a contamination, they are able to shut off whole areas from water distribution as well as inform the customers about such a contamination in a timely manner.

So, the short answer is: “Yes, you can drink tap water.” Whether you actually do so is another story.

Limescale, chlorine, and other chemicals

We ask whether there any concerns associated with presence of limescale, chlorine, or trihalomethanes in our water. The WSC points out that water coming from desalination is so pure that it is corrosive. Controlled addition of food-grade lime is done to regulate this corrosivity, thus ensuring no damage is done to the network (including private plumbing) in contact with this water. Interestingly, the WSC stated that this controlled addition of lime is not harmful for human consumption – on the contrary, it is very beneficial for human health.

Now, when it comes to chlorine, this is added to water only at the required doses to keep it safe for consumption when it arrives at the customers.

There have been studies  that have linked exposure to chemicals in Malta’s tap water to bladder cancer cases, particularly when it comes to trihalomethanes (THMs) – which are a by-product of chlorine when it comes in contact with any organics in the water. The WSC replied to this by stating that the levels found in Malta’s drinking water supply also meet EU requirements.

The Corporation held that it is always seeking continuous improvement and has various initiatives in the pipeline to continue improving the taste and quality of water, whilst most importantly continue ensuring that tap water is safe to drink.

But why does tap water taste different depending on where you are?

The WSC does acknowledge that there are currently differences in the taste of tap water across the different towns and villages around Malta and Gozo. This is largely due to variations in the blend of water across the islands. Areas fed directly from the reverse osmosis plants currently report better tasting water than other localities.

“For the past years, the WSC has been working on projects to harmonise this, and in the coming months the quality and taste of water across all Maltese islands will be the same throughout,” the WSC told The Journal.

When it comes to specific tastes, the Corporation explained that water is a very good solvent, and anything dissolved in water has a taste or smell threshold. With respect to Maltese tap water, the three factors that have the greatest impact on taste are chlorine, salinity, and hardness. 

Chlorine is added to tap water as a primary and secondary disinfectant. The dose concentrations ensure water arrives to the consumer free from pathogens, whilst not overdosing to regulate costs and by-product formations. However, upon pouring water from the tap, the dissolved chlorine starts to evaporate via gas breakout, contributing to a particular smell and taste.  The chlorine can be easily removed, if desired, using carbon filtration just before consumption. 

Salinity is taken as the amount of sodium and calcium chlorides in the water, which contribute to a salty taste. Most of the salinity in tap water is coming from the groundwater portion of the blend, due to sea water ingress coming from over-abstraction of ground water. The WSC controls the blending process to ensure that the salinity is within the recommended limits and acceptable to the consumer.

As groundwater percolates towards the water table it acquires dissolved calcium, originating from calcium salts, which contribute towards its hardness. Moreover, food-grade lime is also added to Reverse Osmosis water, for the purpose of controlling its corrosivity when it is distributed through the network.

It should be underlined that the blending process considers all salts and chemicals present or added to the water, to ensure that the final blend delivered to the public conforms with all regulations.

The Corporation is constantly striving to improve the quality and taste of potable water, even if this leads to higher operational costs. The WSC has, in fact, increased the desalinated water portion of the potable water blend, to minimise the amount of dissolved salts. It is also controlling the concentrations of disinfectant (chlorine) in the water and has in place an ongoing programme of distribution network renewal.

Does it make sense to have water filters at home?  

The Water Services Corporation reiterates that tap water in all towns and villages around Malta and Gozo is safe to drink straight. However, the public is free to make use of various filter and purification methods available when it comes to making the tap water more palatable depending on different individual’s taste preferences.

“No additional filters or purification is needed in terms of safety,” said the WSC. It acknowledges that carbon filtration is also employed worldwide to remove any residual chlorine, and any possible by-products from the water at home at point of use.

Upcoming changes to Malta’s tapwater

To improve the taste of Malta’s tap water, the WSC is investing in artificial intelligence (AI) technology to maximise its blending potential of desalinated water and groundwater.

Besides that, WSC’s water distribution network beneath the road surface is continously being renovated to maintain it in good shape, preventing leaks and ensuring the safe distribution of water.

An ongoing project will connect the Pembroke reverse osmosis plant to reservoirs in Ta’ Qali. Once fully implemented, this will lead to a superior and more homogenous taste of water throughout Malta. This will be done by means of a centralised distribution system which will ensure consumers in all localities enjoy better tasting water with lower salinity and hardness.

It’s interesting to know that the WSC’s newest reverese osmosis plant in Gozo has made Malta’s sister island self-sufficient when it comes to meeting its water needs. In fact, it produces enough water to cover both local demand as well as to transfer water to Malta if needed. It has generally led to water of a higher quality being delivered to Gozitan customers.

The next change is cultural

There might come a day when tap water becomes people’s natural choice for hydration. By understanding the meticulous processes involved in water treatment and distribution, people may feel more confident in choosing tap water as a reliable and safe option.

Transitioning from bottled water to tap water requires a significant cultural shift, marked by a re-evaluation of habits, perceptions, and environmental consciousness.

Photo: 123rf

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Phil Richards
6 months ago

Its great to see that WSC suggests that “The chlorine can be easily removed, if desired, using carbon filtration just before consumption. ” a good activated carbon block system such as TAPP Water in Malta will remove chlorine in addition to 100+ other contaminants such as the THM’s referred to in the studies linked to Bladder Cancer