Lessons from the Genova bridge collapse

The collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genova should lead to a number of lessons which have an application hundreds of kilometres away from Genova.

Notwithstanding the fact that the official investigations into the bridge collapse have barely commenced, the media in Italy is discussing the possible causes of the collapse and whether there are any other bridges on the Italian mainland that may shortly have a similar fate. The fact that there have been some seven other bridge collapses in Italy during the past five years adds more fuel to this debate.

Among the many lessons to be learnt is the need to ensure adequate maintenance of public structures at all times. How does Malta score? Not very well, I would say. Have a look at the bridge forming part of the Marsa/Qormi flyover. It does not send out a good message even if, as stated by Infrastructure Malta on Friday, the flyover is structurally safe. The authorities in Malta have only announced the commencement of a maintenance programme for this bridge when questions began being asked as a result of the Genova tragedy.

Hopefully we will henceforth have regular maintenance schedules of all public structures and,  maybe, someday the dripping Santa Venera tunnels will be seen to permanently!

What about good governance in tenders for public projects? A recent decision by the Public Contracts Review Board is cause for concern. The award of the contract for the building and finishing of a health centre in Paola was halted by this Board after serious doubts regarding the evaluation procedure were raised. In fact, two professionals (an engineer and an architect) were identified as being simultaneously advisors of the Health Ministry’s Foundation for Medical Services as well as two of the three tenderers. It is, in my opinion, very difficult to understand how nobody at the Foundation for Medical Services was aware of this glaring conflict of interest. Good governance is apparently not the Foundation’s strong point.

Now that the Public Contracts Review Board has decided the case, I would expect that the professional bodies regulating the professionals involved take appropriate action on what is clearly a very serious breach of professional ethics.

Adequate quality control of materials used on site is another fundamental issue. The investigations regarding the quality of concrete used in the construction of the Mater Dei Hospital project comes to mind. The Foundation for Medical Services was also responsible for this project.

This issue has been dealt with not only by an inquiry led by retired judge Philip Sciberras but also by a report drawn up by the Auditor General at the request of the Finance Minister, which was concluded and published last May.

We may remember that, in the Auditor General’s report, it was emphasised that he found a “significant lack of documentation with respect to all stages of the project”. This led the Auditor General to conclude that “the Foundation’s inability to provide basic information relating to a project of this magnitude represents an institutional failure and gross negligence in the administration of public funds”.

On the other hand, the inquiry led by retired judge Philip Sciberras also identified various deficiencies in respect of which it recommended that action be taken.

I point in particular to conclusion No. 5 of the Sciberras report which states that : “the widespread failings uncovered by the present day technical reports indicates that the pervasive weak concrete found in the site is a result of intended fraudulent actions. Moreover, the Board is left with a distinct impression that events as they transpired were not the fruit of coincidence or providence but seem to indicate an element of concertation and direction.”

Apparently, not much has been done to date regarding the  implementation of the recommendations of these reports. Shall we wait for our own bridge collapse before action?

There is one basic lesson to be learnt from the Genova tragedy: a lack of good governance is a potential killer.

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 19 August 2018

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