Vittoriosa does not take its name lightly. The proud city where the Knights of St John’s lead the defence of the island during the Great Siege of 1565 from, is still the buzzing hub of life it was 500 years ago.
“There’s no stopping here!” tells me John Boxall, the iconic Mayor of Vittoriosa, or Birgu (Borgo) as the locals call it. “There is always something happening here… residents’ needs, events… we have a lively community, composed of young families who have chosen our beautiful city as their home, as well as veterans who keep us tied to our roots… and I am constantly thinking of ways of making their lives better” Mr Boxall says brightly.
The Mayor is a bit of a national icon, and certainly one of the longest serving first-citizens of the island, having lead the Local Council almost uninterruptedly since 1994 when the office was first established.
We agree to meet at the Local Council which operates from the beautifully restored Auberge de France. He opens the majestic door himself, and quickly invites me in and offers me a glass of cold water. The Maltese summer is already baring its teeth, even if its technically not even summer yet, since it’s only mid-June, so I welcome the friendly offering.
The meeting is about the various initiatives the Vittoriosa Local Council is embarking on in order to become more efficient and sustainable when it comes to the consumption of water and electricity.
“I’m always thinking” the Mayor tells me, as we settle down. “I can’t stay still for a second, cos there’s always something to do, some opportunity to take or some initiative I would have dreamt of. Sometimes the inspiration comes in the most unexpected of ways and all of a sudden, you’re half-way through a huge project” Mr Boxall explains.
Vittoriosa has some 22 huge water reservoirs, collectively capable of storing millions upon millions of gallons of water. Designed to withstand the horrors of siege-time, the Knights made sure that Vittoriosa would have enough water supply to last many months, and hence many of the ancient baroque buildings have their own water cisterns.
“I always remember the older folk of town say how underneath the main square there is a large water reservoir. It has been sealed ever since I can remember, and no one from living memory ever remembers it open” Mr Boxall explains.
“So, opening it was always on my mind, but the time hadn’t yet come for it. Some years back however we were trying to locate any surviving paving which once adorned the square before the advent of modern asphalt. I did remember from a long time ago, playing with my fellow altar-boy friends the beautiful patterned paving, and we had decided to start some surface survey work to see if any of it had survived”
“To our surprise, as we were carefully digging, the ground gave way! This was it!” Mr Boxall tells me excitedly. “I quickly ran home and got a long rope and a hammer with me, which I tied together and started lowering into the hole in order to determine how deep this reservoir was. The rope wasn’t long enough” the Mayor smiles.
All of a sudden an opportunity had literally opened up under our feet. An opportunity for sustainable water supply.
This is where a host of collaborating partners came together to help. Today Birgu is Malta’s first water saving city. With the support and collaboration of GWP-Med, The Coca-Cola Foundation, Malta’s Ministry for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development, the Energy and Water Agency and local stakeholders, the historical reservoir was cleaned and restored to once again harvest rainwater.
The actual entry point to the structure was found and cleaned, as technical and historical studies were immediately launched. Here it was determined that the reservoir has two source points from which it is fed water in the wetter months, both, logically feeding from the higher standing areas of town.
Several hundreds of tons of sludge later, the reservoir was now clean and following a rigorous testing process, it was filled again with clean water, to ascertain its impermeability. The huge cistern which houses some 800,000 litres of water, now occupies an important role within the water sustainability chain of this small town on the sea’s edge.
“We have already started using the water of the reservoir, to water all the gardens of Birgu, as well as all the soft areas around town. We are using the water to wash the streets, and during the pandemic we even helped our neighbouring towns as the public cleansing department used water from it to wash streets outside of Vittoriosa too, at a time when public hygiene was a greater priority”
Several other water cisterns, each a wonder of 16th Century engineering, one more beautiful than the last, are also being restored and cleaned as the aim is to move away from the conventional supply of water. The bell-shaped water reservoir under the very Auberge we met in was already being used for this purpose as the Mayor aims to cut off the Local Council offices from the water supply table.
“Electricity is next” he tells me excitedly, as he explains how applications for the installation of PV cells is well under way.
But this isn’t the only initiative Vittoriosa is taking in favour of sustainability.
Mr Boxall tells me how street-lighting in the baroque city has been all changed to more modern, more efficient LED lighting which uses less energy and provides better lighting.
“We want to keep coming up with projects that really make a difference in the quality of life of our residents” Mr Boxall reiterates. “Ultimately, that’s what we’re here for” the Mayor concludes.
So the leaders of this small city, on the edge of the majestic Grand Harbour are still taking its name seriously, as Birgu is still winning convincingly against today’s foes. They might not be wearing the awesome hats of old, but their dedication and determination is second to none.