Sustainable water policy required

rainwater harvesting

Malta needs a sustainable water policy that is implemented rather than just being talked about.

A sustainable water policy has a long-term view. Addressing today’s needs, it keeps in focus the requirements of future generations. It would protect all our sources of water while ensuring that this basic resource is valued as an essential prerequisite for life. Without water, life does not exist. With poor quality water or with depleted water resources we are faced with an inferior quality of life.

Measures to protect the water table are being implemented at a snail’s pace and risk being in place only when there is nothing left to protect. The number of metered boreholes is too little. The electronic tracking of water bowsers transporting ground water is stalled.

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that national institutions have been ineffective as the handling of groundwater is still a free for all.

Rainwater harvesting has been neglected for a long time. Building development, large and small, has ignored rainwater harvesting obligations. These obligations have been in place on a national level for over 130 years. However, they are more honoured in the breach.

Many residential units constructed in the past 40 years have no water cisterns. Consequently, rainwater is discharged onto our streets or directly into the public sewers. Flooding of streets and overflowing sewers are the result.

The Government has decided to tackle this by applying public funds to a problem created mostly by private developers. Through the storm water relief projects funded primarily by the European Union, the Government will, in effect, exempt the culprits. Instead of the polluter pays it will be the (European) taxpayers who will pay, thereby exempting the polluter from his responsibilities!

The developers have pocketed the profits while the taxpayer will foot the bill. This is the result of successive governments lacking the political will to penalise the culprits.

In addition, rainwater discharged into the public sewer is overloading the three sewage purification plants now in operation and, consequently, increasing their operating costs during the rainy season. These increased costs are shouldered by all of us, partly as an integral part of our water bills and the rest gobbling up state subsidies to the Water Services Corporation. This is due to the fact that water bills are a reflection of the operating costs of the WSC, which include the management of the public sewer and its contents!

Storm water plays havoc with residential areas, especially those constructed in low lying areas or valleys carved by nature for its own use and taken over by development throughout the years! Overdevelopment means that land through which the water table recharged naturally was reduced considerably throughout the past 40 years. Instead, storm water now gushes through areas with heavy concentrations of nitrates which end up charging the aquifer. A report by the British Geological Society has identified a 40-year cycle as a result of which it would take about 40 years of adherence to the EU Nitrates Directive to give back a clean bill of health to Malta’s water table.

Treated sewage effluent is being discharged into the sea. Being treated means that, for the first time in many years, our bathing waters are up to standard. But it also means that we are discharging into the sea millions of litres of treated sewage effluent that, with proper planning, could have been used as an additional water source for a multitude of uses. Instead, it is being discarded as waste.

After the sewage treatment plants were commissioned as an end-of-pipe solution at the far ends of the public sewer, the authorities started having second thoughts on the possible uses of treated sewage effluent. At this late stage, however, this signifies that means of transporting the treated sewage to the point of use have to be identified (at a substantial cost) when the issue could have been solved at the drawing board by siting a number of small treatment plants at points of use.

This could obviously not be done as the Government has no idea of what sustainable development is about. The Government led by Lawrence Gonzi excels in speaking on sustainable development, yet, he has failed miserably in embedding it in his Government’s method of operation.

I have not forgotten the speech from the throne read on May 10, 2008, by President Eddie Fenech Adami, on behalf of the Government, outlining the objectives of the legislature that is fast approaching its last days. The President had then stated: “The Government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.”

In water policy, the Nationalist-led Government has failed miserably. The mess that it leaves behind is clear proof that during the past 25 years it has taken decisions that have completely ignored tomorrow’s generations.

published in The Times of Malta, December 1, 2012

More than fine-tuning is required

 

 

Going through the draft National En­vironment Policy (NEP) one immediately acknowledges that its im­plementation will take quite some time. A long journey always starts with a couple of short paces, the first of which being generally the most difficult. While this obviously depends on the level of commitment to the task ahead, the very fact that a decision to start the journey has been taken is of significance.

There are important issues which the draft NEP fails to tackle adequately. I will focus on two of them.

One can start with highlighting principles, the foundations of environmental policy. The Environment and Development Planning Act of 2010, consolidating previously existing legislation, in article 4 thereof defines the objectives of environment policy in terms of principles to be upheld: government action shall aim to protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations in accordance with the principles of precaution and prevention as well as the rectification of environmental damage at source. The importance of the polluter pays principle as an environment policy tool is also emphasised. This is also underlined in article 192 of the consolidated EU treaties.

I expected the proposed NEP to define a policy direction as to how these principles are to be applied in Maltese environment policy. The draft NEP speaks at length on the polluter pays principle exclusively within the context of waste management policy completely ignoring its applicability in other areas. It makes indirect reference to the preventive principle and to the rectification of environmental damage at source. However, it makes very scant reference to the precautionary principle and limits this strictly to genetically modified organisms.

The precautionary principle is incorporated as Principle 15 in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and was subsequently taken up by the EU and various other countries as a basic principle in environmental legislation. The Environment and Development Planning Act of 2010 defines the precautionary principle as “the principle whereby appropriate measures are taken to protect the environment and to ensure sustainable management of natural resources in the absence of absolute or conclusive scientific proof of the need for such measures”. Uncertainty about damage to our health or to the environment calls for policy in which precaution is the primary objective. The NEP is where this should be spelt out.

Other countries have produced detailed documents guiding both stakeholders and policymakers. An example being the report entitled Prudent Precaution, submitted in September 2008 to the Netherlands’ Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment by a panel of experts appointed by the Health Council of the Netherlands. As stated in the introduction to the said report the relevance of the precautionary principle is not restricted to the environment.

The draft NEP is silent and fails to define this essential policy direction. It is hoped that this failure will be rectified.

The draft NEP clearly indicates that the government is preoccupied with a lack of adequate environmental governance. The recognition of this fact is beneficial as the solution of any problem is dependent on recognising its existence.

It is clear that the fragmentation of environmental issues among the different ministries and authorities is not of benefit to environmental governance in Malta. While acknowledging that it would be impractical to have all areas (in particular those with the barest of overlaps with the environment) under one ministry or authority it does not make sense to have both Malta Resources Authority and the Malta Environment and Planning Authority with jurisdiction over fragmented water issues. Nor does the 2008 decision to hive off climate change from the environment to the resources portfolio make any particular sense in a local context. There will always be overlaps between the three pillars of sustainable development. In addition to water and climate change, in a small country it is much easier to coordinate closely related areas such as resources management and the environment. This would amalgamate the small numbers of trained personnel available.

With this in mind it would have been much better if environment protection and the environmental functions of the present MRA had been amalgamated within the Environment Ministry. It would have been of much more benefit than the current fusion of environment protection with land use planning.

Fragmentation is one of the causes of weak environmental governance in Malta. Yet the draft NEP only offers the solution of Cabinet committees. Cabinet committees have never solved anything. Rather they tend to be rubberstamps. The problems created by fragmentation have to be dealt with by bringing the related fragments back together in a permanent manner.

The adequate management of the environment requires a clear political direction and commitment to address administrative fragmentation. While the draft NEP is a courageous attempt it seems to require more than fine-tuning. Present and future generations demand it.

Published in The Times, September 24, 2011

Greens deplore Government’s stand on Bluefin Tuna

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AD, stated Chairperson Arnold Cassola, strongly deplores the government’s
stand against the EU’s proposal to halt for two years the exploitation of the
Bluefin Tuna to ensure that the species is not driven to extinction due to
unsustainable pressure. The population of the breeding tuna in 2007 was only a quarter of the level of that of 50 years ago, most of the decline occuring in recent years.

The Maltese Government’s opposition to the EU Commission proposal, added Carmel Cacopardo AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government, not only shows a lack of an environmental commitment but also exposes the government’s willingness to back short term economic profit at the expense of natural resources.The livelihood of Maltese fishermen who use traditional fishing methods is being threatened by such behaviour.

On the basis of the precautionary principle established in International Fora
and enshrined in Malta’s Environment Protection Act, the Maltese Government should have supported the EU’s proposal thereby protecting blue fin tuna from the unscrupulous exploitation by large scale industrial fishing. There is no need to wait for more detailed scientific studies, concluded Carmel Cacopardo, to arrive to the obvious conclusion that unless there is an immediate halt to bluefin tuna exploitation this species will become extinct shortly.

Ralph Cassar
PRO

 

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Addressing Our Environmental Deficit

published on Sunday 27 July 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 In his address to Parliament last May, the President had stated: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.”

In December 2006, the National Sustainability Commission had drawn up the National Sustainable Development Strategy. Having been approved by Cabinet, it is appropriate that the pre-budget document just published ignites the debate on its implementation. The strategy is a blueprint for action representing a holistic perspective as to how this country should be administered. Its eventual handling will in due course give a clear indication of the government’s real views on sustainable development.

Malta’s energy policy is undoubtedly up for an upheaval. Due to the absence of strategic planning over the years, Malta is one of the few countries without any significant alternative energy generated. Other countries identified their vulnerability because of fuel oil dependency years ago and took action. Denmark has since built up its wind energy industry from scratch since the oil crises in the 1970s and is now a world leader. In 2005 Denmark generated 18.5 per cent of its electrical energy needs through wind.

The pre-budget document identifies near shore wind technology as the next step forward, contributing 95MW of wind energy or seven per cent of Malta’s projected electricity demand in 2010. The shortfall in meeting the EU target of having 10 per cent of electricity demand met by alternative energy is planned to be met with wind turbines at other exposed land sites and industrial estates, including those to be identified within the framework of the eco-Gozo project.

The pre-budget document focuses on macro-generation and does not give sufficient weight to micro-generation of energy, both with small wind turbines as well as with photovoltaic panels. It must be borne in mind that micro-generation if adequately motivated could add up to a substantial amount of energy generated through alternative technology. In addition to residential application (not flats or maisonettes!), schools and public buildings could be ideal sites for the micro-generation of energy. Moreover, one can consider fitting micro-turbines to the structures of the hundreds of disused windmills (water pumps) that pepper the countryside. These windmills were strategically located by our ancestors in wind-prone areas and are now an integral part of the Maltese countryside.

The pre-budget document rightly refers to energy generated through waste. It speaks of the generation of electricity using animal waste through biogas in a facility to be constructed in the north of the island. This is a long overdue initiative. However, I believe that it is badly conceived. The lessons that should have been learnt following the Sant’ Antnin debacle seem to have been forgotten.

The point at issue is whether one facility covering the whole island is sufficient or desirable. Would it be a good idea to transport animal manure across the whole island to a facility in the north?

One point resulting from the public debate relative to the Sant’ Antnin waste recycling plant was the applicability of the proximity principle. The required plant should be sited as close as possible to the source of the waste being processed. This had led to the Sant ‘Antnin projected operation itself being scaled down to deal with one third of the islands’ waste. The rest, it was stated, should be processed on other sites (possibly two) that have not yet been identified! These other sites should be used for the production of biogas too and they should be identified in a location as close as possible to those areas that have the largest number of animal farms in order to minimise the movement of animal waste. Knowing that a number of these farms are sited very close to each other should make matters easier for our waste management planners.

Bad planning brings out another sore point, which was not discussed in the pre-budget document: namely the management of our water resources. Groundwater (a ‘free’ source of freshwater) still accounts for 40 per cent of our potable water supply. Groundwater accounts for the greater part of the water used by agriculture, the construction sector, landscaping activities and various other industrial and commercial concerns, including some hotels which are supplied by bowsers. However, as a result of over-extraction, the quality of the water in the aquifer is becoming saltier by the day and will become useless within our lifetime.

Yet, illegal extraction of ground water continues unabated and the authority responsible for the sustainable use of this precious resource (the Malta Resources Authority) persists in not taking any concrete action. The recent increase in the surcharge on mains water will inevitably result in a rush to drill more boreholes and extract more groundwater, with the consequence that our aquifer will die an earlier death.

Within this context, the construction of wastewater treatment plants treating urban wastewater and discharging it directly into the sea assumes an alarming relevance. A country whose natural water resources are not sufficient for its use ought to manage its water resources in a much better way. It certainly ought not to permit the illegal extraction of water or the discharge of treated water into the sea. The siting of the wastewater treatment plants in Malta and Gozo is such that discharging treated water into the sea is a foregone conclusion. This decision, undoubtedly arrived at based on the original siting of the sewage outfalls, ignores the possibilities to reuse the treated water, either as a second-class source or (with additional treatment) as potable water. Other developed countries, notably Singapore, produce an ever-increasing percentage of their potable water in this manner. This issue is ignored in the pre-budget report.

All this could easily have been prevented with a proper water management planning strategy, which, instead of large-scale plants for wastewater treatment, could have identified a number of smaller sites along the sewer route on the islands for the construction of small packaged wastewater treatment plants. These would have provided ample treated effluent where and when required for agricultural use, landscaping and other uses not requiring water of potable quality – at little or no distribution costs. The widespread availability of this water would have substituted the need to extract groundwater and facilitated the required enforcement action on its illegal extraction.

The total costs would have been substantially less. By costs I do not just mean economic ones but also the ecological cost of losing a strategic resource (the aquifer), which loss will have to be borne by future generations.

As indicated in the public hearings carried out by Minister Tonio Fenech, the pre-budget document deals with the sustainability of localities, rightly linking this issue to the proposed reform of local councils. It refers to the need for localities to draw up a Local Sustainable Development Strategy. In environmental management, we normally consider this within the Local Agenda 21 process currently espoused by thousands of localities around the globe: think global act local.

The sustainable localities proposal is undoubtedly well intentioned, and if adequately planned and applied can lead to positive results. The difficulty that will arise is that of economies of scale. Our localities vary substantially in size: from the largest – Birkirkara, to the smallest – San Lawrenz in Gozo. I believe that the best manner to apply Local Agenda 21 in Malta would be on a regional level. It would entail the setting up an additional level of local government that could be made up of all the local councils in the region. One possibility for the identification of regions would be to follow the boundaries of the seven local plans. These regions could be the channel for drawing up a Local Agenda 21 in conformity with national policy and strategies, which allow ample room for adequate planning. The proposed Conference on Local Sustainable Development would be a good start.

The basic point at issue in all deliberations is to view the economy as a tool at the service of the eco-system rather than as master of all. Adopting sustainable development as a policy instrument is no easy task. It entails taking a holistic view of public administration and its consequences. It signifies that national policy and administrative action need to have a continuous long-term view.

Economic policy generally takes on board social policy. It now needs to ensure that it is subservient to the eco-system because at the end of the day the eco-system is the source of our being. It is only at this point that we will be in a position to settle our country’s accumulated environmental deficit!