The Mgarr ix-Xini area lies along the southern coast of the island of Gozo. The valley starts from the village of Xewkija, where it gradually widens and deepens into a fjord leading to the village of Ghajnsielem and a sheer cliff beneath Ta’ Cenc. This valley, green all year round, gives way to the beautiful bay of Mgarr ix-Xini.
This bay is a favourite diving site, with a rich and varied sea life. Lately it was on the news when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie filmed their movie ‘By the Sea’ between August to November 2014.
The valley is also full of history, with locations such as Ghar ix-Xih, which was used by an Arab Sheik as his country seat. On both cliff sides, there are the famous cart ruts and other prehistoric remains.
Perched on the cliff is the centuries old coal-fired water-pumping station which once supplied fresh water to the whole island. Last year, students of the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Malta started to research and document its history, state of abandonment and situation. Hopefully this multi-storey historic building will be soon restored to it’s original glory.
Below is a summary of the study:
A good starting point would be in the late 1880s when Lieutenant Governor Hely-Hutchinson instructed Engineer Osbert Chadwick to make an inspection of the water supply in Gozo.
At that time, Gozo was dependent on water from natural springs and water from surface flow only; however, up to 1886, there was no evidence of great scarcity of water. Chadwick remarked that, because of the geomorphology beneath them, the villages around Mgarr ix-Xini depended solely on surface water collected in tanks.
He also reported that a number of springs in the Vicinity of Ghajnsielem were flowing into the sea, near Mgarr Harbour. Based on his experience in Malta, particularly after the great success of the pumping station in Wied il-Kbir, Chadwick, felt confident of the presence of an abundant storage of good quality water beneath the deep valley of Mgarr ix-Xini. Moreover, the abundant vegetation, Carob trees, Figs and Vines, lead him to the belief that water was present relatively close to the surface of the valley bed. Any water obtained from this source could advantageously be used in the villages of Sannat, Xewkija, and Munxar.
However, in winter of 1887, rain was well below average and as a consequence, a regular water famine followed in the dry summer months. The Government was obliged to cart water to Sannat, Xewkija and Gharb to supply the quantity strictly necessary to quench the thirst of the inhabitants.Extensive research carried out on the Mgarr ix-Xini fresh water Pumping StationAs a result of these urgent circumstances an immediate countermeasure was required. Thus, in January of 1888, resident engineer G.C. Schinas proposed a project in which the water from the springs in Ghajnsielem would be pumped to Victoria, Xewkija, Sannat, Munxar and Gharb.
This proposal was chosen over Chadwick’s as it had the merit of being based on data already ascertained without incurring the delay involved in trails required in the Mgarr ix-Xini project.
Because, you see, it must be understood that, until the nature of the rock had been tested by manually excavating deep shafts into ground, there was no certainty of success. Thus Chadwick’s idea was dropped.
However, almost a decade later in 1897, the supply from the springs in Ghajnsielem had proved insufficient. Hoping for a similar success which had crowned the operations in Wied il-Kbir, Chadwick proposed again that shafts be excavated in the valley of Mgarr ix-Xini on ground levels between fifty and one hundred feet above the water table. Evidently, his aspirations were fulfilled.
Due to the geomorphological features of the site, this project would entail a major undertaking; keeping in mind, of course, the limited means available in those times. The trail shafts which were dug to assess the quality of water, would then be connected by a series of mines, or galleries, at water table level.
These mines would, in-turn, direct the flow of water into a pit from where it could be pumped into high level reservoirs, to be distributed by gravity for consumption.
Considering the relatively premature advancements in technology at that time, the pump had to be operated by a coal-powered steam engine and, thus, an interdependent infrastructure had to be erected.
This consisted of a system of chambers, excavated into the south side of the valley, these chambers were in-turn, connected to the pit receiving water from the mines and to the road to Mgarr ix-Xini through a number of stairwells and a shaft for lowering bulky items.
Two further shafts where excavated; one was used to exhaust the engine, and was thus connected to a chimney, while the other was used in conjunction with a chute to lower coal into a storage bunker.
A bridge was erected to act as a support for a pipeline which spanned across the valley and went up the shear height of the creek through an excavated tunnel. This tunnel made its way to a reservoir in Nadur, a village built on one of the highest hills on the island. A secondary pipeline supplied water to another reservoir at Ta’ Cenc.
Between 1925 and 1927, a secondary 600,000 gallon engine was installed as to assure continuity of supply. I have reasons to believe that this engine was powered by a diesel generator however this cannot as yet be confirmed due to lack of sufficient evidence.
To house this plant, an auxiliary chamber was excavated and supplied with another chimney. This addition can be clearly identified as it was clad in clay bricks, a feature complete alien to the rest of the building. The underground galleries were also extended further by 170 feet as to be able to extract larger amounts of water.
More than twenty years later, around 1949, the plant was replaced by two Harland electrically driven pumps. And it was also around the same time when a five million gallon reservoir was erected at Ta’ Cenc to cope with the increased demand for water after the war. This reservoir provided, on its own, twice the storage that was available before its construction.
About ten years later a new pumping station was erected in Xewkija and was connected to the same system of galleries, or mines, from which the Mgarr ix-Xini station extracted its water. Soon enough it proved uneconomical to run the two stations when extraction could be centralised at Xewkija.
The problem was that part of the water in the galleries flowed towards Mgarr ix-Xini Station while the rest towards Xewkija Station. Thus, in 1960 it was proposed for the galleries to be deepened by an average of two-and-a-half feet, so that all the underground water can flow towards the newly constructed station.
This deepening of the galleries also increased the natural flow of underground water as a consequence of a larger surface area and a higher pressure head. In a particular telegram it was indicated that the increase in electrical consumption, the Xewkija Pumping Station required to cope with the larger volume of pumped water, was even less than half the labour costs saved by the closing down of the Mgarr ix-Xini Station.
And thus the services of the last two engine drivers and two mates, who operated the Mgarr ix-Xini Station, were no longer required and therefore as a consequence the structure was left abandoned up to this day.
The architecture students who carried out this research would like to “gratefully acknowledge the support of R. A. & Sons Manufacturing for sponsoring our work.”
Photos and information permission by Mario Pace and Gozo news.