The Malta Independent 17 May 2022, Tuesday

What lies beneath? A world of heritage underground

Friday, 29 April 2022, 12:57 Last update: about 17 days ago
Lija Garden. Photo: Steve Mallia- Il-Gibjun
Lija Garden. Photo: Steve Mallia- Il-Gibjun

A series of majestic underground structures enclose a valuable secret on how to fight water scarcity in Malta and Gozo. These reservoirs, built to collect and channel rainwater, amazing feats of engineering and architecture realized by the Knights and British, are testament to the great effort and expense invested to secure the islands' water needs. Vital to Malta's survival for centuries, today they are endangered from disuse, or worse, from being seen as an obstacle to construction and development.


Floriana British Era Reservoir. Photo: Steve Mallia- Il-Gibjun

"We are custodians of a centuries'-old water-saving culture that can teach valuable lessons to all Mediterranean islands struggling with water scarcity. Protecting and reviving this heritage, of which rainwater harvesting reservoirs are a key pillar, can provide us with immensely valuable tools to shield us against climate change" says Manuel Sapiano, CEO of the Energy and Water Agency (EWA). EWA, in collaboration with NGO Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean has formed Alter Aqua, a public-private project with support from The Coca-Cola Foundation and GSD Marketing Ltd., putting this vision into practice by identifying forgotten reservoirs of great cultural and environmental value, and bringing them back to life through restoration works, before handing them back to Malta's communities.

Cospicua Knights and British Reservoir. Photo: Steve Mallia- Il-Gibjun

Last year, major works were undertaken under Victory square in Birgu, in collaboration with the Birgu Municipality, bringing back to life the historic reservoir, which filled up with 800,000 litres of rainwater shortly after its restoration. Currently, works are progressing in the Auberge de France, a 400-year-old building which serves as the seat of Birgu's Municipal council, whose underground reservoir will again be used to collect rainwater, highlighting the importance of rainwater harvesting as part of the Municipality's strategy for water security.

A common interest in rainwater harvesting reservoirs has led Alter Aqua to collaborate with Steven Mallia, a photographer and designer who has devoted himself to researching and uncovering the magnificence and cultural value of these structures. Having already photographed more than 200 underground reservoirs, he is documenting their beauty as well as challenges they are facing:

"Reservoirs are strewn everywhere across Malta and Gozo, in response to the ubiquitous lack of freshwater that our ancestors faced. If we see these reservoirs today only as an antiquated obstacle to development, they stand little chance of surviving. But if we can make their beauty and cultural value shine, and highlight their potential as tourist attractions, then we can unite to protect them."

Mallia firmly believes that the key is to allow more people, including younger generations, see and experience for themselves the magnificence of these structures. He is currently compiling a photographic book, to be released in August 2022, giving the chance to all to 'immerse' themselves in these hidden gems. Mallia already sees evidence of this public interest in the engagement witnessed in his dedicated Facebook group, Il-Gibjun, which counts more than 2,700+ active members who are fascinated by Malta's water saving heritage. It is high time that the value of these underground gems came out into the open.

Reservoir at Harbour Areas. Photo: Steve Mallia- Il-Gibjun

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