After Wednesday’s earthquake: civil defence

 

 

On Wednesday an earthquake of 4.4 magnitude on the Richter scale was reported in the Maltese islands. As far as we are aware no damage was caused, yet it would be appropriate to consider a number of relevant issues.

Are we prepared for the consequences of a much stronger earthquake which would cause considerable damage including the potential death of a substantial number of persons?

Around two years ago, the Civil Protection Department (CPD) in conjunction with the Sicilian counterparts carried out an earthquake simulation exercise in Gozo which, undoubtedly, provided CPD personnel with valuable experience. It is not known if the department has been involved in any subsequent exercises, either locally or abroad, nor is it known if any specific operational changes were implemented by the CPD as a result of the lessons learned in the 2015 exercise.

It is, however, pertinent to point out that it is not only the CPD, the Police, the AFM and the Health Authorities that need adequate and continuous training to cope with the aftermath of a strong earthquake in the Maltese Islands. In addition to the operators of the different sectors of the infrastructure (energy, water, transport) the civilian population should also receive training for this unlikely eventuality.

Simulation exercises involving the civilian population are necessary as they would develop at local level an ability to manage a disaster. We need to start from scratch in building up a civil defence corps worthy of the name, coordinated and trained by the CPD but based in each locality in Malta and Gozo.

It is a responsibility which, together with adequate resources, should be assigned to local councils under the watchful eye of the CPD.

This would be the appropriate way to build up an adequate general level of preparedness for disaster management. The involvement of the local councils would also ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable members of our communities are addressed. Specific protocols need to be developed and tested in conjunction with local councils regarding the assistance required by children and those who are bedridden or disabled. Catering for all disabilities is an indispensible prerequisite and this requires trained personnel to which the CPD currently has little if any access. It is an easily identifiable deficiency that needs to be addressed forthwith.

Those in charge of disaster management in time of need require the ability to communicate with people having impaired hearing. Is anyone at the CPD, the Police, the AFM or the Health Authorities able to communicate in sign language? Addressing this communication deficiency on the part of the authorities is required not just to ensure that Malta is adequately prepared for disaster management, it is also an everyday deficiency that every authority in Malta that offers a direct service to the population at large needs to address. With around 500 known Maltese with impaired hearing and a number of others who could have remained below the radar, this is an issue that is manageable primarily at local level.

The CPD is one of the youngest departments and to date it has given sterling service in fire-fighting, managing pollution and providing assistance required as a result of flooding after heavy storms. We look forward to the next step in its development: ensuring that training in disaster management is an integral part of the services of local authorities.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 27 August 2017

Advertisements

Harvesting rainwater

flooding.Bkara

At the time of writing the average rainfall in Malta from 1st September 2014 to date is recorded at 442.4 mm. The actual rainfall varies from a high of 529.6mm recorded at Selmun to a low of 373.7mm noted at Valletta. With still some months to go, it seems that precipitation in the Maltese islands during the current year will shortly exceed the average annual precipitation of 553.12mm, computed by Charles Galdies in his National Statistics Office publication entitled The Climate of Malta: statistics, trends and analysis 1951-2010. It will however be far short of 955.62mm, the maximum recorded precipitation in Malta which was recorded at Luqa Airport in 1951.

Since 1880, legislation in Malta has specifically provided for the construction of water cisterns in buildings, primarily residential ones. The dimensions of these water cisterns varied over time. Originally they were related to the floor area of the residential building. Recently, the required volume was reduced to be related to the footprint of the building.

These regulatory provisions are however more honoured in the breach, even when reduced. This is not a recent phenomenon. Regulatory control in Malta has been in decline since the 1960s building boom.

Instead of being collected in rainwater cisterns, in an ever increasing number of cases, rainwater is discharged directly onto our roads, or else into the public sewers. As a result, navigating some of our roads during or immediately after heavy rainfall is a dangerous exercise.

This is a case of water literally going down the drain. Large volumes of storm water, which can be utilised for various purposes, are being wasted. Much has been written about the potential use of harvested rainwater. Its use domestically can substantially reduce water bills.

It is also an issue of civil protection. Large quantities of rainwater in our streets, at times moving at an excessive velocity, are a danger to life and limb. Fortunately, it is very rare for people to lose their life in storms in Malta, but damage to property is a more frequent occurrence.

When rainwater is discharged into our overburdened public sewers, not only does the water overflow onto our streets, but it also increases the costs of sewage purification unnecessarily. These costs are recovered through our water bills. Hence, in the end, we all pay the costs of this abuse, irrespective of whether we are participants or not.

The major culprits are a substantial portion of the developers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. The government, directly, as well as through its agencies, has also been responsible for the development of housing estates without providing for rainwater harvesting.

In particular, it is common knowledge that in cases where basement or semi-basement garages are constructed, the duty to provide for rainwater harvesting is very rarely complied with. Since 1992, MEPA has been responsible for determining and ensuring the observance of the conditions of development permits, which in most cases, specify the required capacity of a rainwater cistern.

The Water Services Corporation (WSC) has during the last years, taken over the responsibility for the management of the public sewers from the former Drainage Department. This responsibility includes authorising owners of newly- constructed properties to connect the drains with the public sewer.

Is the WSC verifying that it is only the drains that are connected and, in particular, that rainwater pipes are not connected to the public sewer too? The obvious answer is provided by our streets on a rainy day. No one is bothering to check what is connected to the public sewer . This leads to the conclusion that, while the culprit for the present state of affairs is the building industry as, more often than not, it does not provide for rainwater storage in new developments, it is not the only one to blame. The authorities and government departments must take a substantial share of the blame for not shouldering their regulatory responsibilities. They could have stopped the abuse, but they did not.

A number of areas are practically out of bounds whenever heavy or continuous rainfall hits the Maltese islands. This is a source of danger and, in fact, the Civil Protection Department is heavily involved in assisting residents or motorists who are trapped as a result of flooding. The Birkirkara local council had, some years back installed a storm warning system to alert residents and passers-by that, “danger was on the way”! Public authorities in Malta, unfortunately, have developed the habit of dealing with the effects but continuously ignore the cause of flooding!

Monies made available by the EU have been used to fund a project for the construction of underground tunnels through which it is planned to collect rainwater from our streets and roads and to discharge most of the collected storm water into the sea.

The EU funds utilised in the construction of these tunnels have been utilised to squander a very precious resource. European taxpayers’ monies too have been flushed down the drain. They could have been put to a much better use if they had been applied to address the lack of adequate rainwater harvesting in our towns and villages.

We have been inundated with political speeches lauding sustainability and sustainable development. However, when push comes to shove, it is more than amply clear that this is just a case of some Members of Parliament showing off a newly-acquired vocabulary they have not yet understood. In 2015, Malta still lacks a sustainable water policy.

Published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 22 February 2015

Malta u l-iżbroff tal-vulkan Marsili

Marsili Area of impact

M’hiex xi storja ġdida li l-vulkan Marsili jista’ jiżbroffa minn ħin għall-ieħor. Hi storja li kien hawn ħafna diskussjoni dwarha madwar tlett snin ilu.

Il-vulkan Marsili hu vulkan rieqed li qiegħed sitwat taħt il-baħar Tirren. Minn studji li saru ma jidhirx li qatt żbroffa fl-istorja riċenti. Fil-gazzetti ta’ tlett snin ilu jingħad li qatt ma kien hemm żbroff ta’ dan il-vulkan “since the start of recorded history”.

Qiegħed iżda jingħad li billi l-ħitan tiegħu huma dgħajfa, jista’ jiżbroffa minn ħin għall-ieħor. Iżda meta dan ser iseħħ, jekk iseħħ,  ħadd ma jaf. Il-konsegwenzi iżda jafu jkunu diżastrużi. Kif jidher fil-mappa ta’ hawn fuq l-impatt ewlieni jkun fuq in-naħa t’isfel ta’ l-Italja u fuq it-tramuntana ta’ Sqallija. Minħabba li Sqallija isservi ta’ tarka jidher li ftit li xejn ikun hemm impatt fuq il-gżejjer Maltin.

Fl-inħawi li jistgħu jkunu milquta kemm fi Sqallija kif ukoll fl-Italja, ser isiru eżerċizzji ta’ taħriġ mill-awtoritajiet fil-pajjiż inkarigati mill-protezzjoni ċivili dwar kif l-awtoritajiet għandhom jilqgħu għall-emerġenza li tista’ tinħoloq.

L-impatt ikun bħala riżultat tal-maremot (tal-qawwa ta’ 7.5 fuq l-iskala Richter) li l-iżbroff tal-vulkan jiġġenera. Hu ikkalkulat li dan l-iżbroff jista’ jiġġenera tsunami b’mewg għoli għaxar metri li jista’ jagħmel ħerba fiż-żoni indikati fil-mappa ta’ hawn fuq.

U f’Malta?  Jidher li ftit li xejn ser ikun hemm impatt kif anke’ qalet is-seżmologa Maltija Dr Pauline Galea f’kummenti li kienet tat lit-Times f’Malta tlett snin ilu.

Imma jkun għaqli li fil-waqt li nosservaw li l-iżbroff ta’ dan il-vulkan, jekk iseħħ, ftit li xejn jista’ jkollu impatt fuq Malta, nagħmlu sewwa jekk neżaminaw ftit fil-fond il-ħidma tad-Dipartiment tal-Protezzjoni Ċivili u naraw ftit jekk aħniex ippreparati f’kaz li nintlaqtu minn xi diżastru simili.

Wisq naħseb li m’aħniex ippreparati.

Tajjeb li nistaqsu ftit mistoqsijiet.  Għal-lum waħda tkun biżżejjed.

Fl-1 ta’ Diċembru 1999 il-Parlament Malti approva liġi li permezz tagħha waqqaf id-Dipartiment tal-Protezzjoni Ċivili. Skond din il-liġi il-Prim Ministru kellu jaħtar Kunsill dwar il-Protezzjoni Ċivili li fost ir-responsabbiltajiet tiegħu għandu l-obbligu li jara li l-pajjiż ikun imħejji għall-“emergenzi u diżastri pubbliċi”.

Fejn wasalna?

The risk of being ill-prepared

Hurricane Sandy swept through the states of New York and New Jersey making it clear to all that the forces of nature, amplified and stronger as a result of climate change, will spare no one.

The impacts of climate change are here for all to see. The destructive power of nature is being made incrementally worse by a warming climate. In 2012, it was Hurricane Sandy that wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey. In 2005, it was Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans.

The havoc left behind in New York and New Jersey has been documented by the visual media. Less evident was the damage and misery in Haiti and neighbouring Caribbean countries.

Nature does not discriminate; it does not distinguish between rich and poor. Nor does it distinguish between developed and undeveloped countries. It sweeps away all that lies in its path.

Large areas of New York were without electricity. Over 40,000 New Yorkers were homeless as a result of Hurricane Sandy. This made the news.

However, disaster-stricken Haiti has been hit much harder. More than 200,000 Haitians already in makeshift homes as a result of the 2010 earthquake are now homeless.

A cholera outbreak in Haiti could be made worse by floods. Haiti, which is an agricultural economy, has also suffered a large loss of crops. This will lead to food shortages compounding the misery of an already impoverished nation.

Meteorologists have commented that more hurricanes are occurring late in the season, even after their “normal” season has ended. A 2008 study had pointed out that the Atlantic hurricane season seems to be starting earlier and lasting longer.

Normally, there are 11 named Atlantic storms. The past two years have seen 19 and 18 named storms. This year, with one month to go, there are already 19 named storms.

It is not only in the Atlantic that the climate is changing. Earlier this month, the Meteorological Office informed us that, in Malta, October 2012 was the sixth hottest month on record since 1922. With an increased frequency we too are witnessing more intense storms, which are playing havoc with an ill-prepared infrastructure.

The civil protection issues resulting from flooding will be hopefully addressed through storm-water relief projects substantially funded by the EU. While this will go a long way towards reducing damage to life and limb, it addresses the effects while leaving the causes of flooding largely unaddressed.

Malta’s climate change adaptation strategy, adopted some time ago, had pointed towards the issue of rainwater harvesting, which has not and still is not given due importance in new developments both those on a large scale as well as those on a much smaller scale.

The lack of application of rainwater harvesting measures through the construction of appropriately-sized water cisterns is an important contributor to the flooding of Malta’s roads and the overflowing public sewers whenever a storm comes our way. This occurs irrespective of the severity of the storm. Addressing this cause would go a long way towards reducing the volume of storm water that has to be contained to prevent it from causing damage.

By now it should be clear that there is no political will to address the issue as such a measure would entail taking action against developers (large and small) who did not provide rainwater harvesting facilities in their quest to increase profits (or reduce costs) in their land development projects. This has been the unfortunate practice for the past 50 years. Old habits die hard.

The expenses required to tackle a principal cause of the problem has been shifted from the developers onto the public purse, this including the EU funds being utilised. This expense has to make good for the accumulated (and accumulating) incompetence in rainwater management by focusing on the effects but simultaneously ignoring the causes.

Therefore, when one speaks on the devastating impacts of nature and climate change it should be realised that some of these impacts are being amplified as a result of the way in which successive governments have mismanaged this country’s resources.

The impacts of flooding are the ones which leave a lasting impression due to their detailed documentation by the media. There are, however, other impacts that are as important and in respect of which a public debate is conspicuously absent. I refer in particular to the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture and health.

Higher temperatures will slowly change our agriculture as the type of crops that can withstand higher temperatures are generally different from those which are currently prevalent. In addition, higher temperatures means that we will have some alien insects flying around, some of which are disease carriers.

Not discussing these issues does not mean that they will disappear. It only means that we are ill-prepared for the inevitable impacts and the necessary changes.

There is much to be done. So far, we have barely scratched the surface.

Published in The Times of Malta Saturday November 10, 2012

A five drop policy

We need a five drop policy: a sustainable water policy which would treat with care our five sources of water.

Drop No. 1 is a drop of rainwater. We need to handle rainwater with care. If we harvest it appropriately we will be able to make use of it when it is required. If we harvest it we will also reduce its flow in streets and diminish substantially the overloading of our sewers whenever it rains.

Drop No. 2 is a drop of storm water. Storm water flowing through our streets can be substantially reduced if rainwater harvesting is done appropriately. The remaining storm water would then be less of a danger to life and limb. It would be less of a civil protection issue and much more an exercise of collecting rainwater from streets to be utilised for non-potable purposes.

Drop No. 3 is a drop of ground water. Ground water has been mishandled for years on end. It is time that we realise that this resource which has been collected and stored by nature is finite. Through the years it has been over-extracted such that the quality of what’s left is compromised. It has also been contaminated by human activity, primarily agriculture, such that it would take a minimum of 40 years to reverse the process.

Drop No. 4 is a drop of treated sewage effluent. Treated sewage effluent is being discarded as a waste when it should be valued as a very precious resource. Treating sewage before discharging it into the sea honours Malta’s obligations under the Urban Wastewater Directive of the European Union. However throwing it away into the sea is an unsustainable practice which should be discontinued. We should appreciate its value and put it to good use. At the moment we are discharging treated sewage effluent into the sea at three points along our coast and then taking it up again at other points to produce potable water through our reverse osmosis plants!

Drop No. 5 is a drop of sea water.  Sea water is much cleaner nowadays due to sewage being treated before discharging into the sea. This has improved substantially our bathing waters. But sea water is also the source of over 55% of our potable water which we process through our reverse osmosis plants.

These five drops of water make up our water resources.

Water is of strategic importance to ensure a healthy eco-system, for our quality of life as well as for our economy.  Government can and should do much more to protect this precious resource. But we should also consider how we could improve our input by using this resource properly.

A sustainable water policy is a five drop policy through which each and every one of us values each and every source of water.

This post was originally published in di-ve.com on Friday 9th November 2012

The Cost of Incompetence

times_of_malta196x703by Carmel Cacopardo

published Saturday, January 17, 2009

___________________________________________________________

Walking or driving through some of our roads during or immediately after heavy rainfall is no easy task. If you are lucky you will “just” encounter large quantities of ankle-deep rainwater. It may, however, be worse if the rainwater is mixed with sewage.

This is happening so often that it is hardly news any more!

Three issues should be underlined. The first is rainwater literally going down the drain!

Secondly, it is an issue of civil protection: life and property are endangered.

Thirdly, it’s a case of an overloaded public sewer and, consequently, an unnecessary increase in the costs of sewage purification.

Local building regulations applicable since 1880 established the capacity of rainwater cisterns that are to be provided as an integral part of a dwelling. Unfortunately, a number of residential properties constructed over the last 45 years have not been provided with cisterns for rainwater storage.

The major culprits are a substantial portion of the developers of blocks of flats and maisonettes. In particular, in cases where basement or semi-basement garages are constructed, the duty to provide for rainwater storage is very rarely complied with. In those instances where a rainwater cistern has not been provided, rainwater is being disposed of either directly onto the street or else straight into the public sewer.

When disposed of onto the streets, rainwater is a contributor to flooding whereas when discharged down the drain it overloads the public sewer which, subsequently, overflows onto our streets.

As a result, this adds a health hazard to an already alarming situation.

Mepa has since 1992 been responsible for determining and ensuring the observance of the conditions of development permits, which, in most cases, specify the required capacity of a rainwater cistern. Mepa shares this responsibility with the public health authorities.

The Water Services Corporation (WSC) has, during the last years, taken over the responsibility for the management of the public sewers from the former Drainage Department. This responsibility includes authorising owners of dwellings to connect their house drains with the public sewer.

Is the WSC verifying that it is only the house drains that are connected and, in particular, that rainwater pipes are not connected to the public sewer too? The answer is provided by our streets on a rainy day. No one is bothering to check.

This leads to the conclusion that, while the culprit for the present state of affairs is the building industry as, more often than not, it does not provide for rainwater storage in new development, it is not the only one to blame. The authorities and government departments have a substantial share of the blame for not shouldering their responsibilities.

A number of areas are out of bounds whenever heavy or continuous rainfall hits the Maltese islands. This is a source of danger and, in fact, the Civil Protection Department is heavily involved in assisting residents or motorists who are trapped as a result of flooding. The Birkirkara local council had some years ago installed a storm warning system to alert residents and passers by that “danger was on the way”!

Public authorities, unfortunately, have developed the habit of dealing with the effects but continuously ignore the cause of flooding!

Austin Gatt, as the minister responsible for the WSC, recently announced that the government will introduce a drainage tariff as of next year. He stressed that, in terms of the EU Water Framework Directive, the government has to recover costs related to the treatment of urban wastewater. Leaving aside for the time being the discharge of the treated wastewater into the sea (I have dealt with this elsewhere) it is clear that the cost of treating urban wastewater includes an expense which can easily be avoided if the public sewer is not overloaded with rainwater during the rainy season. All of us will thus be forced to pay the cost for the gross incompetence of the government through its authorities.

We have also been informed that part of the €855 million made available by the EU will be used to fund a project for the construction of underground tunnels through which it is planned to collect rainwater from our streets and roads. It is planned not only to store the rainwater underground but, possibly, also to make use of it in order recharge the depleted water table!

No one has yet explained how it is intended to deal with the contamination of rainwater by sewage prior to it being collected in the projected tunnels. But even if this is remedied, the EU funds will be effectively subsidising a number of developers who, once more, will shift their responsibilities and expenses onto the taxpayer. EU monies are taxpayers’ funds too!

This is the accumulated cost of incompetence!