Opinion | Sunday, 21 March 2010

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Potholes and boreholes

Every winter, roads in Malta and Gozo seem to get increasingly pockmarked with a variety of craters of all shapes and sizes. Drivers often complain about punctures, bent rims and other damage. When driving around we try to remember the locations of particularly deep holes in order to avoid them when they are full of water and invisible. All in all, it’s a nightmare.
Well for once we are not the only ones complaining! This year, weather across Europe was particularly cold and the freezing and subsequent thawing of roads across the continent has resulted in several cracks in the tarmac and a rash of potholes. The situation is exacerbated by the state of the economy, since cash-strapped governments are not in a position to finance the repairs. Sounds hopeless, does it not?
Well, the local council and people of Niederzimmern (a small German village located a few miles from Liepzig) have decided to do something about the situation. The council has put up a catalogue of potholes for sale ( at a price of €50 each. People can now buy their own pothole! The money is used to repair the hole and a small plaque is sunk into the tar showing a message or the name of the person who paid for the repair.
The council is ambitious in its marketing plans and has presented the information on its website, both in German and in English, because it believes that foreigners will also be interested in buying their potholes and having their names imprinted on a road in Germany. Guess what... they were right!
The idea sounds a bit crazy, I admit. However the fact is that 52 holes have already been snapped up by television channels and newspapers wanting to advertise. Some people have also bought potholes in the name of their loved ones! The money raised so far is being invested in patching up the streets and sinking little gold medals with funny or loving messages into the surface of the roads.
Since this pothole scheme was launched in Niederzimmern, several other localities have followed suit. The Krakow Board of Municipal Infrastructure and Transport in Poland have jumped on the bandwagon and are now offering potholes in the Polish capital for sale. Most holes sized at about one square metre or less cost 270 zloty while larger holes cost considerably more. Each buyer will receive a certificate of pothole ownership and can have a small temporary sign put up near the hole.
Some concerned (and irritated!) citizens have also taken matters into their own hands!
A man from Johannesburg in South Africa read about Niederzimmern and figured it would be a good way of shaming the local authorities into doing something about the state of the roads in his neighbourhood. He chose two particularly vicious craters and stuck a ‘For Sale’ sign over them, setting the price for each hole at just 1 Rand due to the “enormous oversupply” in the area. The local council have now employed a contractor to patch the roads, so I guess that the message got through.
So next time your car hits a pothole... you know what to do! Get a placard and put it by the side of the road – FOR SALE!

Earlier this week, as I was channel-hopping, I came across a programme where Marco Cremona was talking about Malta’s water table. He explained how the excessive extraction of our groundwater is gradually ruining the quality of our aquifer.
Good water is regularly extracted out of approximately 8,000 boreholes while sea water is flowing in to replace it. In order to have a sustainable rate of replacement, we should not pump up more than an absolute maximum of 23 million cubic metres of water per annum. However, studies have shown that over 35 million cubic metres are being extracted every year. According to Marco Cremona (and several other experts in the field), if water extraction continues at the current rate, in 15 years’ time our water table will have become so salty that it will no longer be usable. The results of that will be catastrophic.
First of all, farmers will have serious problems. Saline water is lethal for most plants, so they will no longer be able to use their boreholes to irrigate their fields. Instead they will have to pay for their water, raising their costs and ultimately the price of their wares.
Even more ominous is the fact that once the groundwater reserves are depleted, the only source of water for the island will be desalination, a process which uses up a lot of electricity. This means that the cost of water will rise considerably and we will start seeing the same type of price hikes for water that we are currently experiencing for power. In fact, in 2008 the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations issued a report warning that the government will have to double household water bills if no action is taken to safeguard Malta’s groundwater resources.
So next time you stand under the shower for 20 minutes, or leave the tap running while washing your teeth, keep in mind that in 15 to 20 years’ time it will be our children who will be paying the price of our folly.


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