With a background in information systems and management, as well as specialisation in the utilities industry, Karl Cilia, CEO of Water Services Corporation, continues to steer the entity towards sustainability, while seeking to strike a balance between resource management and investment.

Before being appointed CEO of the Water Services Corporation (WSC) in 2022, Karl Cilia’s professional journey began with IBM, a global leader in technology, as a lead managing consultant. He played a pivotal role in driving the Integrated Utility Business Solution (IUBS) project, a groundbreaking initiative that transformed utility services for Enemalta and WSC on the island.

The endeavour revolutionised Malta’s approach to utilities, positioning the country as the world’s first national smart grid island, far ahead of other, more resource-rich countries. This achievement, coupled with the WSC’s drive to exceed its primary role and introduce initiatives like green bonds, underscores the corporation’s vision for the future – both in the short and long term.

Nevertheless, in Karl’s view, leadership rises above titles or accolades. Rather, it centres on being an integral part of the team and understanding every facet of the business. “My role is that of a leader,” he shares, “but I don’t see myself as merely a manager or a boss. When I speak to my team, I emphasise that I’m one of them.”

Karl’s approach is steeped in his operational background, giving him a technical perspective on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. In essence, the first chapter of Karl’s journey with the WSC paints a picture of a leader deeply connected to his team – someone who understands the nuances of the industry and who believes in sustainability, advancement and efficiency despite limited resources.

As Karl explains, Malta’s unique geographical challenges necessitate innovative solutions, not least because of the archipelago’s limited natural resources. The WSC’s reverse osmosis (RO) plants are a case in point. Using RO technology, the WSC transforms seawater into potable water, which is an integral tactic in the corporation’s strategy to ensure a sustainable water supply for Malta’s residents and businesses.

Delving into the history of the WSC, Karl reflects: “originally, the corporation was established with the objective of maximising water production and distribution. Despite efforts to significantly increase water abstraction and production, the supply still fell short of meeting the demand at that time.

Over time, the WSC pivoted its strategy towards minimising leakages and enhancing the sustainability of its operations. It became clear that ramping up water production was futile if significant volumes were lost within the distribution network. Embracing this strategic foresight, Malta succeeded in satisfying its water requirements – not by increasing output, but by optimising efficiency – which in turn deferred the need for further investment in new reverse osmosis plants.” Soon thereafter, the drainage department was merged into the WSC and the organisation became responsible for the island’s end-to-end wastewater management. This large shift meant that the WSC had the opportunity to turn wastewater into “new water”, meaning second-class water that could be used for agricultural purposes.

However, Karl stresses that while investment of this kind is important, the key to the WSC’s success lies in smart management of its current resources, which includes fixing leakages to reduce unnecessary water production and to use less energy. As Karl highlights, “in 1995, we benchmarked our performance using the Infrastructure Leakage Index (ILI), which is a performance indicator of water loss from a water distribution system. Since then, we have reduced our ILI score from 20 to 1.7, which proves that we are doing more with less.”

Malta’s water statistics stand in stark comparison to those of other countries. From solely a leakages point of view in the 1990s, Malta faced a critical loss of water, with up to four million litres wasted every hour. Today, the situation has markedly improved, with the loss significantly reduced to just 350,000 litres per hour. In addition, one of the most efficient RO plants in the world is in Ħondoq in Gozo, which uses just 2.8kwh to produce 1m3 of water – the outcome of an €11 million investment.

Our €300 million national investment plan is a pledge to enhance the security of water supply, address wastewater needs and honour sustainability,” emphasises Karl. As part of this strategy, the ratio of Malta’s water has been adjusted. Previously, it consisted of 60 per cent RO and 40 per cent groundwater, but the ratio has since been modified to 65 per cent RO and 35 per cent groundwater. This initiative is strategically aimed at delivering superior water quality while reducing our reliance on groundwater extraction, thus ensuring the preservation of Malta’s precious aquifer system, aligning our operations with a vision of long-term environmental stewardship and resource conservation.

This and other initiatives form part of a national water investment plan of €300 million over the next decade. A key part of the WSC’s strategy is to tackle Malta’s supply of potable water, particularly because of the environmental and cost challenges associated with bottled water consumption. “The WSC is committed to improving the taste of our tap water because even though it is safe to drink, we must improve its taste,” Karl asserts.

Currently, to improve the quality and taste of the water, the WSC is investing in improving its chlorination dosing techniques while maximising the blending potential of RO and groundwater through the use of AI-assisted technology.

The WSC’s robust vision for the future rests on its past successes, and 2023 was a landmark year. With a focus on conservation and stability, the corporation introduced green bonds, a pioneering initiative in Malta. “As a utility, we are making profits year on year,” shares Karl, “and we felt the time was right to invite the public to participate via bonds. Rather than a purely financial endeavour, we wanted to involve the community in the WSC’s vision for a greener future.”

Looking ahead to 2024, Karl is optimistic about the opportunities and challenges that await. “We have multiple projects in the pipeline, including upgrading our RO and wastewater plants, as well as expanding new water networks. Importantly, though, we’ve pinpointed seven new sites for renewable energy, which we intend on covering with solar panels,” he explains. The WSC’s focus on renewable energy aligns with its broader commitment to reducing its carbon footprint – an objective outlined in its national investment plan for the next 10 years.

More partnerships and collaborations are also on the horizon. “We’ve partnered with the general public through our green bonds initiative, and we also have multiple renewable energy projects using private-public partnership agreements,” Karl clarifies, explaining that these partnerships are a critical part of the WSC’s belief in the power of collaboration and its commitment to engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders to implement its vision while keeping its customers’ interests front and centre.

Karl’s vision for the Water Services Corporation is clear: a future characterised by sustainability, efficient resource management and a deep commitment to serving the community. “Our drive for 2024 – and beyond – is to be greener and more sustainable,” he asserts. “We will remain steadfast in our focus on renewable energy, reducing losses and doing more with less, ensuring that we provide the best possible service to everyone in Malta.”

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2024 – the sister brand to MaltaCEOs.mt and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders

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