Addressing the environmental deficit

Environment

 

The environmental deficit is constantly on the increase. Each generation creates additional  environmental impacts without in any way adequately addressing the accumulated impacts handed down by the previous generation.

Governments are worried by economic deficits yet few seem to be worried by the accumulated -and accumulating – environmental deficit. We are using the earth’s resources as if tomorrow will never come.

The Living Planet report published regularly by the World Wildlife Fund, demonstrates how the demands made by humanity globally exceed the planet’s biocapacity. In fact,  each year we consume 50% more than what  is produced by the planet.

The ecological footprint, that is the impact which each country has on the earth’s resources, varies geographically. On a global level, the average ecological footprint of a human being is 1.7 hectares. Malta’s ecological footprint has been calculated at around 3.9 hectares per person, more than double the global average. This adds up to an impact of around 50 times the area of the Maltese Islands.

Put simply, this means that in order to satisfy the needs of  each and every person in Malta  we are, in fact, utilising land in other countries.  In fact we import most of our requirements from other countries, thereby using their natural resources. We use  their air, their land, their water and their natural resources.

The politics of sustainable development seeks to view  and address these impacts holistically. It also considers today’s impacts  in the light of tomorrow’s needs and seeks to ingrain a sense of responsibility in decision-making. It does this by addressing the root causes of the environmental deficit.

Sustainable development policy understands that Maltese roads are bursting at the seams. We have reached a situation where improving the road network will improve neither connectivity nor the quality of the air we breath.  Malta’s small size should have made it easy ages ago to have excellent connectivity through public transport, with better air quality as a bonus. But it was ignored.

A sustainable water policy in Malta would have dictated better utilisation of rainwater. Instead, we spend millions of euros- including a chunk of EU funds- to ensure that instead of collecting rainwater we channel it straight into the Mediterranean Sea, only to harvest seawater  immediately through our reverse osmosis  plants. To make matters worse, we treat wastewater before dumping it into the sea when, with some extra thought (and expense) it would have been put to much better use.

Sustainable development embedded in our land use policy would lead to a substantial reduction in the land available for development and certainly to a strict ODZ protection protocol. Instead, we are faced with a situation resulting in a high number of vacant properties coupled with a nonchalant attitude to developing more agricultural land, as if we had a lot to spare!

The environmental deficit which has been accumulating over the years places us in a very precarious position as we cannot keep living on ecological credit for long.   Excessive ecological credit will inevitably lead to ecological bankruptcy from which neither the EU nor the International Monetary Fund will be able to bail us out.  The only solution is taking our environmental responsibilities seriously, before it is too late.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday, 7 June 2015

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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

World Water Week 2012

 

The Stockholm International Water Institute during the current week is organising the World Water Week. Focusing on the theme of water and food security this is the sixth consecutive year for the Swedish Institute.

In Malta water has been mismanaged for a large number of years. The ground water table is generally depleted. Where ground water is still available this is of poor quality.

Agriculture is one of the major users of water. It has also however contributed substantially to the contamination of the water table as is evidenced  in the various studies undertaken locally, amongst which that prepared for the Malta Resources Authority by the British Geological Society. This report is  entitled “A preliminary study on the identification of the sources of nitrate contamination in groundwater in Malta” and was concluded in 2009.

The existing large number of illegal boreholes are drying up what’s left of the water table transforming what ought to be a public commodity into a private asset as is evidenced by the bowsers transporting and selling water to hotels and swimming pool owners all over the island at a rate which is much cheaper that that charged by the Water Services Corporation (WSC). This is daylight robbery which has been made easy by the inaction or delayed action of the maltese authorities throughout the years.

The result is that ground water cannot satisfy the reqirements for human consumption in Malta. It is in fact supplemented by reverse osmois produced water: around 60% of the water supplied by the Water Services Corporation is reverse osmosis water derived from the sea!

 

Whilst WSC sources part of our water from purified sea water it simultaneously dumps into the sea treated sewage effluent. WSC designed all three sewage purification plants as an end of pipe solution intending specifically, on the drawing board to deal with sewage as waste instead of considering it as a precious resource. After all three plants have been commissioned WSC is considering potential uses of the treated water effluent. Such consideration should have been made at the planning stage years ago!

Later this year the European Union will publish a “Blueprint  to safeguard Europe’s water resources”. This was announced by EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik in a statement which he issued on the World Water Week earlier this week.

It is about time that this Blueprint is produced. Even though in Malta at this point it seems that there is little left to safeguard!

 

originally published in di-ve.com on 31 August 2012

Living on Ecological Credit

published

Saturday July23, 2011

An informal meeting of EU ministers of the environment held in Poland earlier this month reminded us that we are living on ecological credit. Our balance sheet with nature is in the red. It is healthy that EU politicians have recognised this fact.

Environmentalists have been campaigning for ages that the world is living beyond its means. International NGO WWF, for example, publishes information relative to ecological footprint analysis. From the information available, Malta’s ecological footprint is 3.9 hectares per person. This can be compared to an EU average of 4.9 hectares per person (ranging from a minimum of 3.6 for Poland and Slovakia to a maximum of 7.0 for Sweden and Finland) and a world average of 2.2 hectares per person.

This adds up to a total impact for Malta of about 50 times the area of the Maltese islands. A clear indication of the extent of Malta’s reliance on ecological credit.

Malta’s environmental impacts are accentuated due to the islands’ high population density.

Malta’s small size is in some respects an advantage but this advantage has been generally ignored throughout the years. The reform of public transport, currently in hand, could someday put the issue of size to good use by developing an efficient system of communication. This reform, however, has to be properly managed. Preliminary indications point to a completely different direction. I do not exclude the possibility of the achievement of positive results even if, so far, I am disappointed.

The results the Greens hope to be achieved from the public transport reform would be the increased use of public transport and, consequently, a reduction in the number of cars on the road. This will come about if bus routes are more commuter-friendly. A reduction of cars on the road will lead to less emissions and a reduction of transport-generated noise. It would also cut a household’s expenditure through the reduction of fuel costs.

Water management in Malta also contributes considerably to the island’s ecological deficit.

The commissioning of the Ta’ Barkat sewage purification plant means that Malta is now in line with the provisions of the EU Urban Wastewater Directive. But the actual design of the sewage purification infrastructure means that by discharging the purified water into the sea an opportunity of reducing the pressure on ground water and the production of reverse osmosis-produced water has been lost. The purified water could easily be used as second-class water or it could be polished for other uses. When the Mellieħa sewage purification plant was inaugurated it was announced that studies into the possible uses of the purified water were to be carried out. These studies should have been undertaken before the sewage purification infrastructure was designed as they could have led to a differently designed infrastructure. The system as designed means that any eventual use of the purified water will require its transport from the purification plants to the point of use. A properly designed system could have reduced these expenses substantially by producing the purified water along the route of the public sewers and close to the point of use.

Public (and EU) funds have been wrongly used. Water planners have not carried out their duty towards the community they serve through lack of foresight and by not having an inkling of sustainability issues.

It also means that those who advised the head of state to inform the current Parliament’s inaugural session in May 2008 that “the government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development” were not aware what that statement signifies. Repeatedly, the government, led by Lawrence Gonzi, falls short of addressing adequately environmental impacts, as a result pushing these islands further down the road of dependence on ecological credit.

The government could have opted for a fresh start in May 2008 by implementing the National Sustainable Development Strategy, approved by Cabinet some months prior to the 2008 election. Instead, I am reliably informed that the National Commission for Sustainable Development has not met a single time during the past 42 months. As a consequence, the strategy has been practically shelved and discarded.

I cannot and will not say that there have not been any environmental initiatives. While various initiatives have been undertaken, some only address impacts partially. Others have been embarked upon half-heartedly. It is also clear to all that government environmental action does not form part of a holistic vision. It rather resembles the linking up of loose pieces of unrelated jigsaw puzzle bits.

This contrasts sharply with the public’s awareness and expectations. The public is one step ahead awaiting its representatives to act in a responsible manner in accordance with their much-publicised statements.

Excessive ecological credit will inevitably lead to ecological bankruptcy. No EU or IMF will bail us out. It’s better to take our environmental responsibilities seriously before it is too late.

AD concern over BP oil drilling near Malta

Alternattiva Demokratika this afternoon expressed concern about drilling in the Gulf of Sirte which is being taken in hand by BP.

Its spokesman on EU and international affairs, Arnold Cassola, said that it should be of extreme concern for Malta that BP, ‘which has a disastrous track record with regards to safety measures in this field,’ as seen from the recent Gulf of Mexico disaster, was about to start drilling an oil well in the Gulf of Sirte in Libyan waters.

“The Libyan government is already giving Malta a really bad name through the way it deals with irregular migrants. We ask the Maltese government, and the likewise subservient PL opposition led by Joseph Muscat, to speak up and show some dignity and self respect and not continue acting as if Malta were a colony of Libya,” he said.

Carmel Cacopardo AD spokesman on sustainable development, observed that approximately 60% of Malta’s drinking water is obtained through reverse osmosis. In the case of a major accident in the new BP oil well 500 kilometres away from Malta, a major source of drinking water may become unusable, he said.

“After the serious accident on the BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico which has been traced to incompetence and decisions doing away with safety procedures, a similar accident in a BP-run oil-rig is not an impossible happening. Such an accident will also have a long term effect on the livelihood of Maltese fishermen as well as on the tourism industry, not to mention the ecological havoc. AD calls upon the Maltese government to insist with the Libyan government as well as with BP that they are to ensure that all safety procedures are in place before drilling starts,” Mr Cacopardo said.

He also called upon the UK government which has defended BP with the US administration, to use its good offices to ensure that the lessons learnt from the Gulf of Mexico are acted upon immediately.