Planning for the foreseeable future

Human nature has always been preoccupied with the future. However, at times we tend not to realise that we mould a substantial part of the future through our actions today. Unfortunately, sometimes our actions today and the future we want, point towards completely different directions.

Our future is necessarily a common one, as explained in the 1987 report of the UN Commission on Environment and Development -, the Brundtland report – aptly entitled Our Common Future. Drafted by an international commission led by former Norwegian Socialist Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, this report placed sustainable development on the global discussion platform, emphasising that we are responsible not only for each other’s welfare today but also for that of future generations. We need to consider carefully that our actions today have a considerable impact and can possibly limit the choices that future generations would have to make.

The impact of our behaviour on the climate is one such example. The impact of climate change is causing havoc in weather patterns and consequently also impacting on all areas of human activity. The patterns and intensity of rainfall is unpredictable. Our road infrastructure never coped, and now it is getting worse.

Earlier this week The Guardian reported that the planet has just a five per cent chance of reaching the Paris climate goals. Rather than avoiding warming up by more than 2oC by the end of the century, it is more likely that Mother Earth will heat up to around 5oC beyond the pre-industrial era.

The predicted consequences are catastrophic. Another report published in April this year had informed us that there are worrying signs for Greenland ice sheet which covers 80 percent of its 1.7 million square kilometres surface area: it has been observed melting faster than ever before. On its own, this factor could potentially cause a rise of many meters in sea level – as many as seven metres.

This is certainly not the future we want. Any rise in sea level rise, even if minimal, would threaten the functionability of all coastal areas and facilities. It would also wipe out entire coastal communities and islands worldwide would disappear. It would be a future of climate- change refugees pushed to higher ground by a rising sea-level. This will not only have an impact low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean: it will also hit closer to home.
Take a look at and consider the places along the Maltese coast: Msida, Ta’ Xbiex, Pietá, Sliema, Marsaskala, Marsaxlokk, San Pawl il-Baħar, Burmarrad, Birżebbuġa, Marsalforn, Xlendi and many more.
Readers will remember the occasional rise in sea-level at Msida. In one such instant – on 11 May last year – the change in sea level was of more than a metre as a resulting flooding the roads along the coast. This phenomenon is known as seiche (locally referred to as “Il-Milgħuba”) and reported in this newspaper under the heading “Phenomenon: sea-water level rises in Msida, traffic hampered.” It also occurs at St George’s Bay in Birżebbuġa – on a small scale but on a regular basis, causing quite a nuisance to car users.

Now this phenomenon only occurs temporarily, yet it still substantially affects traffic movements when it does. Imagine if the rise in sea level rise is of a permanent nature?

Large parts of our coast are intensively developed – with roads and residential properties, as well as substantial sections of the tourism infrastructure and facilities. In addition, there is also the infrastructure of our ports which we have developed as a maritime nation over the centuries. All this points to the need for adequate planning to implement urgent adaptation measures in order to reinforce Malta’s coastal infrastructure. If we wait too long it may be too late.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 August 2017

Santiago and maritime affairs

Aerial View_Grand Harbour

Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea” was unlucky. It took him 85 days to catch his big fish. But when he did, being on his own out at sea without any help, he had to tow it back to port, only to discover then that the sharks had reduced his catch to a mere skeleton.  It is the same with maritime policy. We need to coordinate with our Mediterranean neighbours to have meaningful and lasting results. On our own we can achieve very little.

A national integrated maritime strategy is an essential policy tool. Yet, as was pointed out by Parliamentary Secretary Edward Zammit Lewis, it is still unavailable. On May 19, European Maritime Day,  it was emphasised by Zammit Lewis that such a strategy would identify Malta’s maritime policy priorities required to support the Blue Economy.

The economic opportunities presented by the sea which surrounds Malta are substantial. We do however have to make use of such opportunities carefully, knowing that various impacts may result. Through the sea surrounding us we are subject to impacts as a result of the actions of others. Similarly Malta’s maritime activities necessarily will impact other countries, for better or for worse.

The excellent quality of seawater around the Maltese islands resulting from Malta’s recent adherence to the Urban Wastewater Directive of the EU is one positive contribution to a better Mediterranean Sea even though the sewage treatment system is badly designed as it ignores the resource value of the discharged treated water.

Through Arvid Pardo in the 1960s Malta made a lasting contribution to global maritime thought by emphasising that the seabed forms part of the common heritage of mankind.

The sea and its resources have always had a central importance in Malta’s development. Tourism, fisheries and water management easily come to mind. Maritime trade and services as well as the sustainable utilisation of resources on the seabed are also essential for this island state.

Whilst a national maritime strategy will inevitably seek the further utilisation of the coastline and its contiguous areas it is hoped that environmental responsibilities will be adequately addressed in the proposals considered.

A national integrated maritime policy, though essential, cannot however be effective if it  does not take into consideration the activities of our neighbours: both their maritime  as well as their coastal activities.

This is an issue which is given considerable importance within the European Union which seeks to assist member states in coordinating their maritime policies for the specific reason that the impacts of such policies are by their very nature transboundary.  In fact one of the EU Commissioners, Maria Damanaki,  is tasked with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.  Her work is underpinned by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive which seeks to protect the sea in order that it could be utilised sustainably thereby contributing to attaining the objectives of EU2020, the ten year growth strategy of the European Union.

Within its maritime competencies the EU has also developed effective instruments of transboundary cooperation foremost amongst which are the Baltic Strategy and the Danube Strategy.  These macro-strategies of the European Union, as their name implies, focus on the Baltic Sea and the river Danube respectively. They bring together the European regions bordering the Baltic Sea and the Danube to cooperate in various policy areas such that the resulting coordination addresses challenges which no single country can address on its own.

Such strategies also serve as an instrument of cooperation with non-EU countries. Through the Baltic Strategy it is cooperation with Russia, Iceland and Norway whilst through the Danube Strategy eight EU member states cooperate with six European non-EU member states.  The EU has also more recently launched an Atlantic Ocean Strategy.

A national maritime strategy will  seek to identify those areas which can absorb strategic investments in order to develop the blue economy.  An important point worth emphasising is that a sustainable development of the blue economy will ensure that no negative impacts are borne by our communities residing along and adjacent to the coastal areas. Unfortunately not enough attention has been paid to this aspect in the past. Such negative impacts can be avoided not only through careful planning but also through proper consultation with both civil society as well as directly with residents.

Impacts which have to be avoided include air and sea pollution. In addition potential noise and light pollution need careful attention in particular if the operating times of the newly identified activities span into the silent hours.

Malta’s Maritime strategy needs a double focus: a national and a regional one.  Both are essential elements neither of which can be ignored. It is in Malta’s interest to take part in initiatives addressing transboundary impacts and simultaneously to integrate these initiatives within a national maritime policy strategy. Otherwise we will face Santiago’s fate. The result of our good work will be taken up by the sharks!

Originally published in The Times of Malta, Saturday June 8, 2013