Obliterating the future

Humanity is at war with nature. Isn’t it about time for peace?

This is the basic message of António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, in an address delivered at Columbia University earlier this week.

António Guterres said: “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes.”

If humanity keeps the current pace there is the danger that we destroy the future before we have even understood the risks that we are continuously creating.

The past decade has been the hottest in human history. Some are still focusing on short term gains ignoring long term losses. Even if all the commitments made at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 are honoured completely, we would still have some way to go in order to attain the agreed minimum objectives: limiting the global mean temperature increase to not more than 2 degrees Celsius, hopefully closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Beyond the 2-degree limit climate change will become catastrophic and irreversible.

Climate change is nature fighting back forcefully, without discriminating. The war is on at full speed all over the globe. In some parts it is drought. In others it is floods. Havoc is the result everywhere. The intensity and frequency of storms is on the increase as the cumulative impacts of our actions continuously increase.

There is no possibility to negotiate with nature, her demands are clear and simple: unconditional surrender. We need to change our ways and habits. Nature can be a reliable friend but if transformed into an enemy, it is ruthless as climate change shows unequivocally.

It has been a hectic 48 years since the first ministers for the environment were appointed as a direct result of the deliberations of the international community in the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in June 1972. Some progress has definitely been achieved over the years but it is certainly nowhere close to enough.

It has been realised that there is only one earth which we need to care for. It has been 34 years since the Brundtland report placed sustainable development on the international agenda. Though officially accepted as an important policy objective, it is still subject to mental gymnastics in determining practical every day action to reduce impacts which threaten our future.

The spirit of the 2015 Paris summit is one which recognised the need for urgent action, yet five years down the line procrastination is still the order of the day. As we may have realised by now, half measures are not effective in addressing nature’s revenge.

We cannot keep postponing the decision to determine the cut-off date for the elimination of petrol and diesel run vehicles from our roads. The decision announced in September 2017 is taking too long to implement leading to the reasonable assumption that reluctance is having the upper hand.

The electrification of our roads is one important step which needs to be implemented rapidly if we are to start the path to carbon neutrality in a meaningful way. It must however also be accompanied by a reduction of the number of cars on our roads, an achievable objective, given the small distances which we travel in such a small country. 

It is to be underlined, once more, that the Transport Master Plan for the Maltese Islands has identified that around 50 per cent of our car journeys are for short distances in respect if which we can definitely use alternative means.  This signifies that the required changes, in our case, are less painful, even in the short term. We need however to address contradictory policy stances: the required reduction of cars from our roads will be more difficult to achieve if the development of large-scale road infrastructure is still the order of the day. Even the proposed Gozo Channel tunnel falls in this category as its feasibility is dependent on maximising car movements, a requirement which is in direct contradiction to the Paris Climate Summit conclusions!

The risk of obliterating the future is still present. Nature will not be fooled. It can distinguish between greenwash and meaningful action. Unfortunately, it is clear that it has not been impressed by our action to date. There is not much time left to change course.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 December 2020

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

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