Unrequited love

▪️ Unrequited love ▪️ Water ▪️ Drinking plastic ▪️ Bucking the trend

I know that in politics words often lose their meaning or mean the complete opposite of what the normal definition in a Webster dictionary would be.  Thus, ministers say that the cost of living allowance is an “investment” in people when it is nothing of the sort, since investment is a capital expenditure, not a recurrent one, and concerns physical or intangible assets. 

At the opening of a debate about the hospitals deal, Prime Minister Abela promised that he would not delve into partisan politics and immediately followed that by a claim thatPN MP Alex Borg wants to dethrone Bernard Grech as PN leader and that he “wouldn’t blame” Borg or other aspiring PN MPs if they try to do so.

I think that the Leader of the Opposition is seriously in the running to get an award for making lame quips.  Some time ago he claimed that “Prime Minister Robert Abela has given up on governing”, while Abela was clearly still occupying Castille.  His latest effort was to tell PL supporters that, “If you love the PL, vote for PN.”  

Now, it is well-known that Dr Grech is being accused by many political analysts, and even by a substantial chunk of his own party, of being ineffective and out of touch.  All the three national non-party newspapers have been writing that the PN will suffer another electoral defeat unless Grech pulls up his straps. It would seem that he has given up on that and believes he’s got a better chance of governing if he convinces PL supporters that their unrequited love would be better reciprocated in the PN.

Of course, anything can happen in the topsy-turvy world of politics, but I seriously doubt that by telling PL supporters that he has the best interests of the PL at heart, they will embrace Grech rather than just invalidate their vote. 

Water

“Water, water everywhere, not any drop to drink.” This is from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and is used to suggest that, despite being surrounded by something, you cannot benefit from it.  It certainly applies to us where it concerns drinking water supplies.

Malta’s 406,500 citizens use around 110 litres a day per person, which is relatively low compared with other EU countries. But one also has to take into account the needs of some 115,000 foreigners working in Malta and a steadily growing number of tourists equivalent to an annual population of around 54,500 people.

Malta is one of the top 10 water-scarce countries in the world.  Lack of rain means that our groundwater aquifer is not being replenished adequately, such that nowadays we get just over a third of our water supply from it, the rest being produced by expensive desalination plants.  The prognosis for the future is even worse, since it is estimated that we will lose 16% of our groundwater through climate change and rising sea levels over the next 80 years.

Photo: Miriam Alonso

Is the lack of water about to change? Last June an international team of scientists, including some Maltese ones, announced that they had discovered 75 years’ worth of groundwater in the seafloor off Malta’s coast. The salinity of offshore freshened groundwater is below that of seawater.

At present, offshore freshened groundwater is expected to predominantly occur between Malta and Gozo, and along the coast between Ċirkewwa and Valletta, with the largest extensions offshore of St Paul’s Bay, Salini, and St Julian’s. The groundwater body is up to 100m thick and 3 km from the coast. 

The potential exploitation of these offshore freshened groundwater resources is not that straightforward.  First, most of the groundwater is situated in two low permeability layers, which would mean that its extraction could be complicated and expensive. Second, the predicted decrease in precipitation as a result of regional climate change is expected to diminish offshore freshened groundwater extent by 40%. 

Of course, technological advances might make it easier to extract such water and more efficient solar-powered desalinisation plants might become available.  However, more recurring educational campaigns are needed to drum it into people’s heads that if we can’t afford water, we have no right to waste it.

Drinking plastic

The average litre of bottled water contains a quarter of a million pieces of microscopically small plastic  ̶  and the researchers who made this discovery have said that although it might not be dangerous, it’s made them cut back on how much bottled water they drink.

Using laser-powered microscopes, the researchers analysed samples from three well-known brands of bottled water in the UK. According to their findings, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 90% of the plastic pieces were not microplastics, but nanoplastics. 

These are even smaller than microplastics. As the National Library of Medicine explains, “Microplastics (MPs) are plastic particles with a diametre less than 5mm, while nanoplastics (NPs) range in diameter from 1 to 100 or 1000 nm [nanometer].”  Nanoplastics are  believed to be more toxic since their smaller size renders them much more amenable, compared to microplastics, to enter the human body.  To put that size in perspective, there are 10 million nanometres in a centimetre.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

There’s no reason to believe that bottled water in Malta is any different. This means that, given that we consume some 206 million bottles of water annually, the whole population is ingesting 50 million pieces of microplastics every year. We consume the least amount of tap water in the EU. The main reason for this is that most of us do not like tap water, despite the fact that this water meets all EU standards.

A few years ago, as microplastics began turning up in the guts of fish and shellfish, concern started growing on the safety of seafood. Shellfish were particularly worrisome because we eat the entire thing  ̶  stomach, microplastics, and all.  Belgian scientists even calculated that seafood lovers could consume up to 11,000 plastic particles a year by eating mussels, a favourite dish in that country.

Scientists have shown that plastics continuously fragment in the environment, shredding over time into fibres even smaller than a strand of human hair  ̶  particles so small they easily become airborne. A team at the UK’s University of Plymouth has compared the threat from eating contaminated wild mussels in Scotland to that of breathing air in a typical home. They concluded that people will take in more plastic by inhaling or ingesting tiny, invisible plastic fibres floating in the air around them  ̶  fibres shed by their own clothes, carpets, and upholstery  ̶  than they will by eating the mussels.

The science of the impact of ingestion of micro and nano plastics by the human body is still in its early stages.  However, certain bird populations are already thought to be threatened by widespread exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals contained in plastics. Laboratory studies of fish have found plastics can cause harm to reproductive systems and stress the liver.  Dick Vethaak, a professor emeritus of ecotoxicology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, doesn’t consider the situation alarming yet, “but, yes, we should be concerned. Plastics should not be in your blood.”

Bucking the trend

Malta is one of two EU countries that has managed to shrink its deficit without resorting to scrapping energy subsidies, according to Moody’s economic outlook for 2024. Malta and, to a lesser extent, Greece bucked this trend. The factors driving the drop in the deficit in Malta included higher revenue from tax collection.

Malta recorded one of the highest deficits in the EU throughout 2023, at an estimated 5% of the country’s GDP, with economic experts predicting that it will remain among the highest in the bloc in 2024.

The credit rating agency notes that most fiscal improvements throughout the EU over the past year have been driven by a cut in energy subsidies, as countries rolled back the measures that were introduced throughout the pandemic. The EU has been pressuring its member states to phase out subsidies and redirect money towards cutting their deficits instead.

Photo: Polina Kovaleva

The Central Bank of Malta has issued a similar warning, with its governor, former finance minister Edward Scicluna, saying that fiscal support needs to be “targeted and temporary”.  The government, on its part, is arguing that energy subsidies need to remain in place for the time being  ̶  it is planning to spend over €320m to subsidise energy costs this year alone.

The government is betting that high GDP growth will be enough.  Frankly, I doubt that this on its own will do the trick.  I have a sneaking suspension that cuts in capital expenditure will be needed if expenditure is not reined in.  That would be a mistake: sacrificing investment for recurrent expenditure is rarely a good strategy.

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