Nature calls the shots

COVID-19 has brought the country to a standstill. We are not isolated from nature and its forces at work around us. We are not immune, not just from viruses, but from the forces of nature.

Today it’s the pandemic COVID-19 that’s ploughing through. Tomorrow it will be climate change.

Nature acts in a non-discriminatory manner.

The coronavirus pandemic is thought to have had its origins at the Wuhan wild animal market in China through the sale of meat derived from various wild animals, primarily bats.

This is not the first time for such an occurrence. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), is another respiratory disease which was detected some 20 years ago, when it had a limited spread. It was traced to a virus belonging to the same family of viruses as the Coronavirus, also traced to viruses originating in wild animals. Incidentally, bats seem to be the point of origin in both cases.

At other times HIV (Human immune-deficiency Virus) which destroys the human immune defences, was traced to the eating of meat of infected chimpanzees. Likewise, the Ebola virus, causing outbreaks of fatal infections, is transmitted from infected animals such as fruit bats, chimpanzees, and monkeys, to humans, generally through the consumption of infected meat.

Nature has a habit of calling the shots whenever it deems fit. Viruses follow natural paths and until brought in check by proper behaviour on our part, they will reign supreme.

Tinkering with nature and natural processes always backfires. There is then a price to pay and we ignore this at our peril.

None of us, most probably, has consumed infected meat from bats or chimpanzees. However, we tinker with nature in other ways, which, in the longer term are just as lethal as viruses which jump from bats to man.

The quality of our air is poor. The European Environment Agency in fact, at times, describes it as very poor.

Yet after the Coronavirus mitigation measures came into force there was a substantial decrease in air pollution registered at the air-monitoring station in Msida operated by the Environment and Resources Authority. Data available indicates a significant decrease in pollutants associated with a decrease in car use during the past weeks as more work from home and the educational institutions closed their doors. Car use has decreased substantially, as a result leading to an all-round decrease in traffic generated pollutants.

It had to be the Coronavirus to commence seriously “implementing” Malta’s National Transport Master Plan which identified car-dependency as a major issue ignored continuously by our transport planners. A basic statistic which stares at us in the face is that 50 per cent of car trips in Malta have a duration shorter than 15 minutes. It follows that mobility is primarily local and regional in nature and on very short routes. Do we need private cars for this? Are the available alternative means of transport not sufficient for this need in a country where practically everywhere is a stone’s throw away?

The impact of COVID-19 on the generation of traffic and consequently on air quality should be an eye opener indicating that we do not need to waste public funds on unnecessary infrastructural road works. We need to understand that it is possible to substantially reduce our impacts on air quality if we address car-dependency head-on. The traffic impacts of Coronavirus could be of help to transport planners to do their job properly.

The impact of traffic on air quality is a significant contribution from Malta towards climate change.

Climate change is nature’s reaction to man-made pollution of the atmosphere. This is already manifesting itself through changes in temperatures, extended periods of drought and changes to rainfall patterns. The seasons at times seem to be inversed. It could get worse, much worse in fact.

The Coronavirus impact has introduced some much-needed breathing space for nature and natural forces, not only in Malta. There are significant lessons to be learnt in order to adjust our behaviour. When the full force of nature releases additional impacts of climate change, the coronavirus impacts would pale to insignificance. Is it not about time that we start listening to nature and act accordingly?

Published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 29 March 2020

Il-politika dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli

Il-politika dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli hi materja li għandha tkun f’idejn il-Prim Ministru minħabba li tmiss ma’ kull qasam tal-politika. Hu interessanti li għal darba oħra r-responsabbiltà politika għall-iżvilupp sostenibbli reġgħet ġiet lura Kastilja, f’ħoġor il-Ministru Karmenu Abela, li nħatar Ministru fl-Uffiċċju tal-Prim Ministru. Sal-lum dan rari seħħ ħlief għall-perjodu qasir li fih Mario Demarco kien Segretarju Parlamentari għat-Turiżmu u l-Ambjent.

Robert Abela mhuwiex l-ewwel Prim Ministru li emfasizza l-ħtieġa li jingħata iktar importanza lill-iżvilupp sostenibbli. Ħadd minnhom, imma, ma rnexxielu!

It-terminu “żvilupp sostenibbli” huwa l-iktar wieħed mit-termini fid-dizzjunarju politiku li huma użati ħazin. Il-lingwaġġ politiku użat kważi qatt ma jasal biex ifisser u jispjega li l-politika dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli hi politika li tħares fit-tul: li kontinwament, huma u jittieħdu d-deċiżjonijiet, tagħti każ il-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri.

Il-gvernijiet ma jagħtux importanza biżżejjed lill-iżvilupp sostenibbli għax din m’hiex biss dwar illum imma hi ukoll dwar għada. Hi dwar kif il-ħidma tal-lum teħtieġ li issir b’mod li ma jkunx ippreġudikat għada u l-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri. Għada min rah? L-interess ta’ bosta minnhom iwassal sa ħames snin, jiġifieri sal-elezzjoni ġenerali li jmiss.

Dan hu punt li saħqet dwaru Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norveġiża u soċjalista demokratika li kienet Prim Ministru ta’ pajjiżha. Fir-rapport li hi ħejjiet għall-Ġnus Magħquda snin ilu dwar l-ambjent u l-iżvilupp, intitolat Our Common Future, emfasizzat li “Naġixxu b’dan il-mod għax nafu li mhu ser jiġri xejn: il-ġenerazzjonijiet futuri ma jivvutawx; m’għandhomx poter politiku jew finanzjarju; ma jistgħux jeħduha kontra d-deċiżjonijiet tagħna.”

Il-politika dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli mhix biss dwar l-ambjent: hi dwar kif inħarsu b’mod integrat lejn il-politika ambjentali, ekonomika, soċjali u kulturali. Tfisser li l-ħidma tagħna jeħtieġ li tħares fit-tul u li simultanjament trid tkun kompatibbli man-natura, l-ekonomija, l-iżvilupp uman u l-kultura tagħna.

L-iżvilupp sostenibbli hu dwar kif nistgħu f’kull ħin inkunu f’armonija ma’ dak li aħna mdawrin bih. Il-ħin kollu, u mhux biss meta jaqbel. Tirrikjedi s-sinkronizzazzjoni tal-politika kulturali, soċjali, ambjentali u ekonomika. Għax il-ħarsien tad-dinjità umana, l-apprezzament tal-wirt kulturali u l-ħarsien ambjentali huma essenzjali daqs l-iżvilupp ekonomiku.

Fil-qafas globali, kif ukoll Ewropew, il-politika dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli tfisser ukoll l-implimentazzjoni tal-miri dwar l-iżvilupp sostenibbli approvati mill-Ġnus Magħquda: 17-il mira imfissra f’169 oġġettiv. Din hi l-Aġenda Globali 2030 li dwarha l-Unjoni Ewropea ħadmet ħafna biex tkun maqbula mill-komunità internazzjonali. Filwaqt li l-Aġenda 2030 hi importanti kollha kemm hi, partijiet minnha għandhom importanza ikbar għalina f’Malta.

Ħu, per eżempju, l-immaniġjar tal-ilma. Hu essenzjali li nifhmu li huwa meħtieġ li r-riżorsa tal-ilma nieħdu ħsiebha sewwa u li l-użu li nagħmlu minnha jkun wieħed sostenibbli. Sfortunatament, sal-lum, l-immaniġjar tal-ilma f’Malta huwa kkaratterizzat minn doża mhux żgħira ta’ inkompetenza. Hemm aċċess kważi bla kontroll għall-ilma tal-pjan filwaqt li kwantità kbira ta’ ilma tax-xita jintrema l-baħar: kemm direttament permezz tal-mini li tħaffru għal dan l-iskop kif ukoll permezz tas-sistema tad-drenaġġ. Ir-regoli dwar il-ġbir u l-ħażna tal-ilma tax-xita applikati mill-awtoritajiet għal bini u żvilupp ġdid ħafna drabi mhumiex osservati. L-awtoritajiet ftit li xejn jagħtu kas.

Il-politika dwar it-transport hi qasam ieħor fejn l-ippjanar li ma jħarisx fit-tul jeħtieġ li jkun sostitwit billi tkun applikata l-politika ta’ żvilupp sostenibbli. Il-Pjan Nazzjonali tat-Trasport, li jibqa’ fis-seħħ sal-2025, jiġbdilna l-attenzjoni tagħna li nofs il-vjaġġi li nagħmlu bil-karozzi privati jdumu inqas minn kwarta. Dan jindika li inizjattivi biex ikun imrażżan it-traffiku fuq livell lokali u reġjonali jista’ jindirizza b’mod effettiv il-konġestjoni tat-traffiku fit-toroq tagħna bil-vantaġġ doppju ta’ titjib fil-kwalità tal-arja fejn din hi l-iktar meħtieġa.

Il-Pjan Nazzjonali tat-Transport jgħidilna li f’dan il-qasam, tul is-snin, ftit li xejn ħarisna fit-tul. Dan wassal, jgħidilna l-pjan, għal nuqqas ta’ direzzjoni strateġika u bħala riżultat ta’ dan żviluppajna l-inkapaċità li jkunu indirizzati materji diffiċli bħalma hi dik li tikkonċerna t-tnaqqis tal-karozzi privati. Min-naħa l-waħda għandna dan il-ħsieb sostenibbli dwar l-ippjanar tat-trasport, imma imbagħad min-naħa l-oħra l-Gvern ġie jaqa’ u jqum u għaddej bi programm ta’ nfieq sostanzjali fl-infrastruttura tat-toroq bl-iskop li tiżdied il-kapaċità tagħhom u bil-konsegwenza li d-dipendenza tagħna fuq il-karozzi tibqa’ tiżdied.

Dan kollu żejt fil-bażwa għax ġie ippruvat tul is-snin, bi studji li saru f’diversi pajjiżi, illi l-iżvilupp tas-sistema tat-toroq ma tnaqqasx il-konġestjoni tat-traffiku, imma isservi biss biex il-problema tkun posposta inkella tiċċaqlaq minn żona għall-oħra.

L-affarijiet huma agħar fil-qasam tal-ippjanar għall-użu tal-art. Gvernijiet suċċessivi wrew li ma kienux kapaċi jrażżnu l-iżvilupp esaġerat. B’wiċċ ta’ qdusija artifiċjali t-tmexxija politika tiddeskrivi lilha nnifisha bħal ħbieb tan-negozji (business friendly) inkella, kif smajna din il-ġimgħa ħbieb tas-suq (market friendly) u dan biex jippruvaw jiġġustifikaw in-nuqqas ta’ azzjoni adegwata. Qalulna li l-industrija tal-bini tant ħolqot impjiegi li qed tikkontribwixxi b’mod effettiv għal titjib fil-kwalità tal-ħajja.

Imma, kif bla dubju nafu lkoll, l-industrija tal-kostruzzjoni kienet fuq quddiem nett tkattar il-ħsara lill-pajjiż permezz ta’ żvilupp esaġerat bil-pretensjoni li l-ħsara ambjentali ikkawżata minnhom nagħmlu tajjeb għaliha aħna, l-bqija. Sfortunatament, ġew mgħejjuna minn gvernijiet suċċessivi li kontinwament fittxew kif jagħmluhielhom iktar faċli biex igawdu l-frott ta’ ħidmiethom. L-ippjanar tal-użu tal-art kif ipprattikat f’pajjiżna mhux sostenibbli u iktar ma jkun imrażżan malajr, ikun aħjar għal kulħadd.

In-nuqqas tal-politika għall-iżvilupp sostenibbli tinħass prattikament fl-oqsma kollha. Jeħtieġ li llum qabel għada nħarsu fit-tul f’kull deċiżjoni li tittieħed. Kien pass tajjeb, pass ‘l-quddiem li r-responsabbilta politika għall-iżvilupp sostenibbli marret lura f’Kastilja, fl-Uffiċċju tal-Prim Ministru. Imma dan għandu jkun biss l-ewwel pass. Il-bidu, segwit minn hafna iktar passi.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : il-Ħadd 19 ta’ Jannar 2020

The politics of sustainable development

The politics of sustainable development is a matter for the Prime Minister’s direct consideration as it is wide-ranging and concerns all areas of policy.

It is quite interesting that once more sustainable development has taken up residence at Castille, being the responsibility of Minister Carmelo Abela, who has been appointed as a Minister within the Office of the Prime Minister. This was very rarely the case to date except in the short period during which Mario de Marco was Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism and the Environment.

Robert Abela is not the first Prime Minister who has emphasised the need to give much more importance to sustainable development. To date, however, none of them has delivered.

Sustainable development is one of the most abused and mis-used terms in the political lexicon. Political discourse continuously fails to project the politics of sustainable development as having a long-term view and continuously factoring future generations in the decision-taking process.

Governments do not give sufficient importance to sustainable development as this is not just about today. It is rather about how today’s activity should not prejudice tomorrow and future generations. This is not sufficiently on the radar of today’s politicians. Their interest, generally, does not span more than five years: that is until the next general election.

This is a point underlined by former Norwegian social democrat Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in her seminal UN Report Our Common Future who emphasised that “We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.

The politics of sustainable development is not just a matter of environmental concern: it involves a holistic consideration of environmental, economic, social and cultural policy. It signifies that our actions must have a long-term view and be simultaneously compatible with the forces of nature, the economy, human development and our culture.

Sustainable development is about living in harmony with all that surrounds us, at all times, not just when it suits us. It requires the synchronisation of cultural, social, environmental and economic policy. Shielding human dignity, appreciating our culture and environmental protection are as essential as economic development.

Within a global and EU framework the politics of sustainable development also involves following and implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals and the associated 169 targets. This is the global 2030 Agenda to which the European Union contributed substantially. While the whole 2030 Agenda is important, some aspects of it are relatively more important on a local level.

Consider water management, for example. It is imperative that we realise that we need to manage our water resources in a sustainable manner. To date gross incompetence has characterised water management in Malta. Access to the water table is still substantially a free for all, while storm water is mostly dumped into the sea, either directly or through the public sewer system. Rules for rainwater harvesting within the framework of land use planning are more honoured in the breach, without the authorities taking the minimum of enforcement action.

Transport policy is another area where short-term planning needs to give way to the politics of sustainable development. The National Transport Master Plan which runs until 2025 draws our attention that 50 per cent of private car journeys involve trips that are shorter than 15 minutes. This indicates that taking initiatives to reduce vehicular traffic at a local and regional level would be of considerable help in addressing road congestion and improving air quality where it matters most.

The National Transport Master Plan emphasises that the approach to transport planning and policy in Malta has, to date, generally been short-term in nature. This “has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint.” On the one hand we have this “written” sustainable approach to transport policy, yet on the other hand government has embarked on an unsustainable spending spree of infrastructural development to increase the capacity of our roads, as a result ensuring that car-dependency continues unabated.

Addressing traffic congestion through expanding the road network only results in shifting the problem: either physically to another area, or else moving it in time.

The cherry on the cake is land use planning. Successive governments have been unable to restrain overdevelopment.

Sanctimoniously they describe themselves as being business friendly or market friendly to try and justify their lack of adequate action. The building industry, we are repeatedly told, creates so much jobs that it “contributes to the quality of life”.

As we are all well aware the construction industry has been a major force in ruining this country through over-development and through expecting us to foot their environmental bills. Unfortunately, they have been aided by successive governments who continuously seek ways to make it easier for the industry to plunder their way through. Land use planning is clearly unsustainable and the sooner it is restrained the better for all.

Sustainable development is conspicuous by its absence in practically all areas of policy. The politics of sustainable development still needs to be ingrained in the day-to-day policy-making structures. Assigning political responsibility for sustainable development to a Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister could be a good first step forward. However, there is still a long way to go.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 19 January 2020

Il-mina bejn Malta u Għawdex: lil hinn mill-ponta ta’ mneħirna

Il-mina taħt il-baħar bejn Malta u Għawdex ser tkun mina għall-karozzi u mhux mina għan-nies. Biex din tagħmel sens ekonomiku ser ikollha tiddependi minn żieda fit-traffiku bejn il-gżejjer u għaldaqstant tikkontradixxi l-ispirtu tal-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport sas-sena 2025.

Tajjeb li niftakru li l-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport imfassal fl-2016 mill-Gvern Laburista jenfasizza li l-linja politika dwar it-transport u l-ippjanar tiegħu f’Malta baqgħet qatt ma ħares fit-tul. Dan ikkaġuna “nuqqas ta’ direzzjoni strateġika u n-nuqqas ta’ kapaċità li jkunu ndirizzati materji diffiċli, bħar-restrizzjonijiet dwar karozzi privati.”

Minflok ma jippresenta politika maħsuba biex tindirizza t-tnaqqis tal-karozzi privati mit-toroq tagħna, l-Gvern u l-aġenziji tiegħu baqgħu għaddejin b’ħidma li tkompli ssaħħaħ id-dipendenza mill-karozzi privati. Dan qed isir permezz ta’ investiment eċċessiv fl-infrastruttura tat-trasport lokali. Dan l-investiment qed isir bil-għan li jżid iżjed karozzi minn kemm filfatt jesgħu t-toroq tal-pajjiż, u dan biex jissodisfa lin-negozjanti tal-karozzi. Importanti ukoll li nirrealizzaw li ladarba l-emmissjonijiet mit-trasport jirrappreżentaw l-ikbar kontribut tagħna għaż-żieda tal-karbonju fl-arja, dawn qegħdin ixekklu l-politika dwar it-tibdil fil-klima li kull Gvern sensibbli jenħtieg isegwi. Dan minkejja li l-Gvern jiftaħar li kien minn tal-ewwel li segwa u beda jimplimenta l-konklużjonijiet tas-summit ta’ Pariġi dwar il-klima.

Fil-konferenza stampa il-Ministri Ian Borg u Justyne Caruana saħqu li l-investituri li ser jinvestu fil-mina għandhom jimmiraw lejn mina li tkun kapaċi tiffaċilita l-moviment ta’ 9,000 karozza kuljum bejn il-gżejjer. Dan ifisser illi jiġi ġġenerat livell ta’ traffiku li jlaħħaq it-tripplu ta’ dak li għandna illum, b’mod konsistenti mal-projezzjonijiet tal-istudju li għamlet id-ditta E-cubed rigward il-vijabilità ekonomika tal-proġett. Dan l-istudju kien ġie kkummissjonat minn Transport Malta u l-Kamra Għawdxija tal-Kummerċ.

Il-ħlas li jkun meħtieġ li jsir għall-użu tal-mina, jiġifieri t-toll, jiddetermina kif jinġabru lura l-ispejjes biex tiġi żviluppata l-mina u biex din tibqa’ topera tul is-snin. Dan kollu jiddependi minn kemm il-mina tintuża mill-karozzi. L-esiġenza li mill-mina jgħaddi l-ikbar traffiku possibli hija l-bażi li ssejjes l-esistenza tal-mina, għax mingħajr dan it-traffiku ma jinġabrux il-flejjes li għandhom jagħmlu tajjeb għall-ispejjes u l-profitti ta’ min ser jidħol għal dan “l-investiment”. Imma dan min-naħa l-oħra jmur kontra objettiv bażiku tal-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport li bi kliem ċar jispjega li t-tnaqqis tal-karozzi mit-toroq hu essenzjali jekk tassew irridu nħarsu lil hinn mill-ponta ta’ mneħirna.

L-ammont ta’ ħlas li ser jinġabar mill-utenti tal-mina ser jiddependi mill-ispiża meħtieġa biex din tiġi żviluppata u mill-ħtieġijiet tal-operat tagħha. Ir-rapporti tal-konferenza stampa li saret iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa ma taw l-ebda indikazzjoni dwar l-istima ta’ din l-ispiża. F’dan l-istadju dan jinftiehem għax għadu ma ġie iffinalizzat l-ebda diżinn. Hemm ukoll raġuni partikolari oħra. L-informazzjoni dwar il-ġejoloġija tal-Fliegu inġabret biss dan l-aħħar u mhemm l-ebda dubju li ser ikun meħtieġ iżjed iżjed tagħrif speċifiku rigward iż-żoni problematiċi. L-istudji mistennija li jkollhom impatt kemm fuq id-disinn finali u kemm fuq l-ispiża li tirriżulta u allura fuq il-ħlas li jkun meħtieg li jintalab mill-utenti tal-mina.

Rari ħafna li proġetti bħal dawn isegwu l-istima tal-ispejjes. Pereżempju, rigward il-każ tal-mina bejn il-power station tal-Marsa u dik ta’ Delimara nafu li l-ispiża finali kienet viċin id-doppju tal-istima iniżjali u dan minħabba in-nuqqas ta’ informazzjoni ġeoloġika. Minħabba dan sfrondaw partijiet mill-mina waqt li kien għaddej ix-xogħol u kellhom isiru ħafna iżjed xogħolijiet, fosthom ċerti bidliet f’partijiet mir-rotta tal-mina nifsha!

Min-naħa l-oħra l-ispiża fuq iċ-Channel Tunnel bejn Folkestone f’Kent u Coquelles ħdejn Calais qabżet l-istima b’madwar 80 fil-mija u dan minkejja li kienu saru studji ġeoloġiċi dettaljati.

Fl-aħħar l-ispiża reali ser tkun bejn is-600 miljun u biljun euro, u din ser tiddependi mid-disinn finali u mid-diffikultajiet ġeoloġiċi li ser jaffaċċja t-tħaffir tal-mina taħt il-Fliegu.

Dejjem jekk isir, dan il-proġett ser iħalli impatti ambjentali sinifikanti, kemm f’Malta kif ukoll f’Għawdex, fosthom li qerda tal-villaġġ trogloditiku fl-Għerien, fil-limiti tal-Mellieħa.

Hemm soluzzjonijiet oħra li jistgħu jindirizzaw b’mod adegwat il-mobilità bejn il-gżejjer Maltin. Irridu nkunu kapaċi naħsbu b’mod kreattiv sabiex insibu soluzzjoni għall-problema reali tal-mobilità tan-nies, iżjed minn dik tal-karozzi. Dan jista’ jseħħ biss jekk nieħdu inizjattivi li bihom naslu ninfatmu mid-dipendenza tagħna mill-karozzi. Dment li ma naslux sa dan il-punt m’aħniex ser inkunu nistgħu nsibu soluzzjoni sostenibbli.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 12 ta’ Jannar 2020

 

Gozo tunnel depends on maximising car movements

The Gozo-Malta undersea tunnel is a tunnel for cars, not for people. It is, in fact, the antithesis of the underlying theme of the National Transport Master Plan for 2025.

It is pertinent to remember that the Transport Master Plan, drawn up in 2016 by the present government, emphasises that the approach to transport planning and policy in Malta has, to date, generally been short-term in nature. This “has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint.”

Instead of presenting a rigorous policy addressing private vehicle restraint, the government and its agencies are continuously seeking to reinforce car-dependency through the encouragement of excessive investments in the local transport infrastructure. This investment aims at increasing the capacity of our roads and consequently dances to the tune of the car lobby. Also, knowing that emissions originating from transport are currently the major contributor to carbon emissions in Malta, encouraging car-dependency is directly opposite to the climate change policy which any sensible government should follow at this point in time.

The Gozo-Malta undersea tunnel is no exception. This week’s press conference by Ministers Ian Borg and Justyne Caruana emphasised the fact that the brief for would-be investors is a tunnel that should have a capacity of 9,000 vehicle movements on a daily basis. This is three times the current movement of vehicles between the islands and is in line with the projections of the 2015 E-cubed study commissioned by Transport Malta and the Gozo Business Chamber dealing with an economic cost benefit analysis of the available strategic options.

The toll to be charged – and, consequently, the tunnel’s economic performance – is dependent on generating the maximum traffic possible. Maximising traffic underpins the very existence of the tunnel. This runs counter to the basic objective of the National Transport Master Plan 2025 which – in crystal clear language – spells out the reduction of cars from our roads as the long-term objective of Malta’s National Transport Policy.

The toll which will eventually have to be paid is also dependent on the costs to be incurred in the development and the operation of the tunnel. Reports on this week’s press conference do not indicate any estimated cost which is, at this stage,  understandable in view of the fact that the design of the tunnel is not yet cast in stone. There is, however, a specific reason for this: geological information of relevance has been compiled very recently and it will undoubtedly require additional studies focusing on problem areas, which studies will have a significant bearing on both the actual design as well as the eventual cost and consequently the toll expected.

This type of projects very rarely follow estimated costs; the tunnel linking the Marsa and Delimara powers stations in Malta, for example, overshot its projected costs by around 100 per cent due to the absence of adequate geological information. As a result, parts of the tunnel caved its construction, necessitating a substantial amount of additional work, including redirecting parts of it.

On the other hand, expenditure on the Channel Tunnel linking Folkestone in Kent to Coquelles near Calais exceeded the projected estimates by around 80 per cent, notwithstanding the availability of detailed geological studies.

At the end of the day, the actual costs of the tunnel will be anything between 600 million and one billion euros, depending on the actual design as well as the geological issues encountered below the Gozo Channel.

If the tunnel materialises, it will result in significant environmental damage in both Malta and Gozo, including the obliteration of the troglodytic village at l-Għerien in the limits of Mellieħa.

There are other solutions which can adequately address the mobility between Malta and Gozo. It does however require thinking outside the box and focusing on the real issue: people mobility. This would require a bold initiative of addressing head-on car-dependency in both Malta and Gozo. Until we take the decision to start shedding our car- dependency, however, no solution can be achieved.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 12 January 2020

Il-parkeġġ fl-Isptar Mater Dei

Matul il-kampanja elettorali għall-elezzjoni ta’ mexxej tal-Partit Laburista, wieħed mill-kandidati, il-Ministru għas-Saħħa Chris Fearne,  ħabbar li dalwaqt ser jitneħħa kull ħlas għall-parkeġġ tal-isptar Mater Dei.

Mal-ewwel d-daqqa t’għajn din tidher proposta tajba u raġjonevoli. Imma meta tibda taħseb ftit fuq l-implikazzjonijiet tagħha malajr tirrealizza li l-għan aħħari ta’ din il-proposta mhux faċli li jintlaħaq. Il-problema tan-nuqqas ta’ spazju għall-parkeġġ hi ferm iktar ikkumplikata u mhux ser tissolva billi jinqata’ l-ħlas.

Dawk li jużaw il-parkeġġ fl-Isptar Mater Dei huma pazjenti li jżuru l-isptar għall-visti (out-patients), persuni li jkunu qed iżuru lill-morda f’kull ħin tal-jum, impjegati tal-isptar u ħaddiema ingaġġati fuq xogħol kuntrattwali fil-konfini tal-isptar. Ilkoll kemm huma ta’ kuljum jiffaċċjaw in-nuqqas ta’ parkeġġ, ħlief dawk li għandhom spazju riżervat għalihom tul il-ġimgħa kollha, irrispettivament minn kemm jużawh.

Dawk il-pazjenti li jżuru l-isptar Mater Dei għal vista mal-ispeċjalisti diversi huma ġeneralment fost l-iktar persuni vulnerabbli, l-iżjed minħabba l-istat ta’ saħħithom. Għaldaqstant jagħmel ħafna sens  li jkun iffaċilitat għas-servizzi tal-isptar. Iżda għalihom it-tneħħija tal-ħlas għal parkeġġ mhi ser issolvi xejn. Anzi, aktarx l-affarijiet imorru għall-agħar.

Il-problema tal-parkeġġ fl-Isptar Mater Dei ġejja minn żewġ fatturi separati u distinti minn xulxin għalkollox. L-ewwel nett hi r-riżultat tal-użu mhux daqstant effiċjenti tal-ispazju tal-parkeġġ fil-konfini tal-isptar. Il-problema, qed tiġi kkaġunata wkoll mill-fatt li fit-toroq għandna għadd esaġerat ta’ karozzi, ħafna iktar milli jifilħu t-toroq tagħna. Dan, kif jirrimarka l-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport, jaħti għalih il-fatt li fil-qasam tat-transport ma ppjanajna qatt fit-tul.

Kieku l-ispazju tal-parkeġġ fil-konfini tal-isptar Mater Dei kellu jintuża b’mod iktar effiċjenti, bla dubju l-problema kontinwa ta’ nuqqas ta’ spazju tittaffa, avolja aktarx xorta ma tissolviex għalkollox.

Mhux biex nikkunslaw, imma tajjeb niftakru li l-problema tan-nuqqas ta’ spazju għall-parkeġġ mhix limitata biss għall-isptar Mater Dei, iżda hija mifruxa mal-gżejjer Maltin kollha.

Din hi riżultat tad-dipendenza esaġerata mill-karozzi li qed ikomplu jiżdiedu jum wara l-ieħor u li allura jikkompetu għal spazji dejjem iżjed limitati.

Dwar in-numru mhux żgħir ta’ pazjenti li jżuru Mater Dei għal xi vista huwa ovvju li wieħed ma nistgħux nistennew li dawn jużaw transport alternattiv. Dan minkejja li għadd minnhom diġa jinqdew bit-transport pubbliku b’mod regolari. Bosta minnhom ikunu jeħtieġu l-għajnuna biex ikollhom aċċess adegwat. Din l-għajnuna jsibuha mingħand il-qraba u l-ħbieb bl-użu ta’ karozzi privati.

L-awtoritajiet tal-Isptar Mater Dei għandhom ifasslu pjan li jindirizza l-ħtiġijiet tat-trasport ta’ dawk kollha dipendenti mill-isptar (pjan li jissejjaħ Green Transport Plan) biex ikun identifikat l-aħjar mod kif jistgħu jintużaw il-faċilitajiet tal-parkeġġ tal-isptar. Dan għandu jindirizza mhux biss il-ħtiġijiet tal-pazjenti fis-sodod tal-isptar u tal-impjegati imma ukoll ta’ dawk kollha li jżur l-isptar f’kull ħin tal-ġurnata.

Dan il-pjan mhux biss jista’ jidentifika soluzzjonijiet prattiċi għat-titjib fl-infrastruttura tal-isptar iżda wkoll jindika l-aħjar mod kif din tista’ tintuża. F’dan ix-xenarju mbagħad it-tneħħija tal-ħlas għall-parkeġġ tkun dettall pjuttost insinifikanti.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 5 ta’ Jannar 2020

Parking at Mater Dei Hospital

Within the context of the electoral campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party, Minister for Health Chris Fearne announced that, shortly, parking at the Mater Dei Hospital grounds will be free of charge.

At face value this is a reasonable proposal. However, when one tries to understand the implications of such a proposal it is obvious that this is easier said than done. The problem of lack of parking space is much more complex and it will not be unravelled by abolishing parking charges.

Users of Mater Dei Hospital parking are out-patients, those visiting bed-ridden patients, hospital staff and contractual workers carrying out duties within hospital grounds. All of them face a daily acute shortage of parking space, except, possibly, a small section of staff who have access to reserved parking on a 24/7 basis irrespective of the time they actually make use of it.

Mater Dei Hospital out-patients are among the most vulnerable of the Maltese population. So, it stands to reason that any measure aiming at facilitating their reasonable access to the services at Mater Dei Hospital would be most welcome. However, the availability of free-parking will not solve their parking problems. Rather, it will possibly make matters even worse than it is at present.

The parking problem at Mater Dei Hospital is the result of two separate and distinct factors. Firstly, it is the result of what is possibly an inefficient use of the available parking space within Mater Dei Hospital grounds. Secondly it is in itself a reflection of the large number of cars on our roads, which, as everyone knows, are bursting at the seams. This, as our Transport master plan points out is the result of an absence of long-term transport planning in the Maltese islands.

A more efficient use of the available parking space within the grounds of Mater Dei Hospital would undoubtedly contribute to reducing the parking problems faced by all users of the hospital, but it will most probably not solve it. At the end of the day the lack of parking space is a problem common to all sectors of Maltese society: it is an issue of over-dependence on the use of private cars with an ever-increasing number of cars competing for limited parking space.

It stands to reason that one cannot expect a number of out-patients to use alternative transport. Some already make use of public transport on a regular basis. Most would however need some form of help with their transport requirements which help is generally forthcoming from family and friends through the use of private cars.

The Hospital authorities need to draw up a Green Transport Plan covering the needs of the hospital’s stakeholders and the optimal use of the hospital facilities for this purpose. Green Transport Planning would analyse the requirements not just of the hospital’s patients and its staff: it would also project the requirements of those visiting patients.

At the end of the day the Green Transport Plan for Mater Dei Hospital would propose practical solutions in improving the hospital’s infrastructure as well as in optimising the use of its facilities. In this respect payment or non-payment for parking would be just a minor detail.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 5 January 2020

Beyond the trees

Trees are in the news, mostly for the wrong reasons. Some of them are being chopped, others are being uprooted and transplanted from areas impacted by road infrastructure projects to elsewhere, generally close by.

At this stage of these projects’ development, their impact on trees along our roads are the most visible outcome. There are various other outcomes that will only become clear in due course.

The symbolic value of trees is powerful. They are the most obvious choice for environmental activists when these need a medium to convey clearly understood messages about what is happening to our environment.

While their symbolic value is spearheading the criticism directed at the road development programme, trees have also inherent value as part of an eco-system that is continuously under siege.

The road development projects currently under way symbolise what is wrong with our planners – they work against nature, continuously failing to factor eco-sensitivity into their plans.

The issue at hand is clearly traffic congestion and the current exercise regarding infrastructure is trying to address this to facilitate mobility. However, in addressing traffic congestion, the main problem is that the authorities are approaching the issue in the wrong manner.

Their approach is based in the short-term and, consequently, the problem is never solved. It is merely postponed to some later date to be picked up again years down the line by future generations. This has been shown to be the case time and again everywhere, and clearly crops up in all major studies on transport planning and management.

Ian Borg, the Minister of Transport, is not the cause of traffic congestion. He has inherited it from his predecessors who failed to act properly on their watch.

Unfortunately, he is following in their footsteps. Borg too will pass the buck to his successor – more roads, more traffic, more bottlenecks, more traffic congestion.

Borg is ignoring the advice that is clearly spelt out in the Transport Master Plan 2015, which clearly identifies car use and ownership as the perennially unaddressed issue.

It would be pertinent to point out the following extract from section 2.2.1 of the Transport Master Plan, saying that: “historically, it can be seen from experience that the approach to transport planning and policy in Malta has generally been more short-term (4-5 years) in nature. The lack of importance given to long-term planning means that a long-term integrated plan based on solid analysis with clear objectives and targets is lacking.”

The section goes on to say: “This has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint. There is a strong reluctance for Maltese society to change but this is in contrast with the need for communal action to address the traffic problems existing now and in the future. This results in the Maltese traveller expecting that everyone else will change their travel habits so that they can continue to drive their car.”

The real issue is that our society is car dependent. This is reflected not only in all we do but also in the manner we go about doing it.

Unfortunately, governments are only interested in short-term solutions as they will generally not be around for much longer than that. So, they do not bother with implementing a long-term vision.

We need to change tack and focus our energy on the long-term solutions. It this case, it means that we can only solve traffic congestion by shifting from a focus on road capacity to one addressing car dependency. This signifies that we no longer merely act on the effects but that, instead, we start focusing on the real cause of our problem: changing our behaviour by reducing our car dependency.

I agree that this is easier said than done. But it is also fair and realistic to state that further procrastination will only add to our problems. The present state of affairs is precisely the direct consequence of a failure to act over a number of years, spurred by a policy and planning failure that has consistently opted for the short-term stop-gap solutions instead of the long-term ones.

 

Published in The Times of Malta: 9 August 2019 

Il-proġett Central Link: riżultat ta’ inkompetenza

Ilkoll naqblu li l-konġestjoni tat-traffiku fit-toroq tagħna hi problema kbira.

Imma hi sfortuna kbira li dawk responsabbli biex jimplimentaw il-politika dwar it-trasport qieshom mhumiex konxji li meta qed japprovaw il-proġett Central Link qed jinjoraw il-kawża tal-problema u minflok qed jikkonċentraw fuq l-effetti. Il-konġestjoni tat-toroq tagħna mhix ikkawżata mit-tul jew mill-wisa’ tat-toroq imma min-numru ta’ karozzi li jagħmlu użu minnhom.

It-toroq tagħna ma jesgħux iktar karozzi li żdiedu b’mod sproporzjonat għad-daqs u l-ħtiġijiet ta’ dawn il-gżejjer.

Id-dibattitu fuq il-proġett Central Link iffoka fuq ħafna materji importanti: l-kwalità tal-arja, l-ħarsien tal-agrikultura, l-ħarsien tas-siġar, l-passaġġi riżervati għar-roti, imma li lkoll kemm huma għandhom importanza marġinali għas-soluzzjoni tal-problema reali tal-konġestjoni tat-traffiku. Il-kawża tal-problema mhix id-daqs tat-toroq imma n-numru tal-karozzi li jagħmlu użu minnhom u li sirna dipendenti wisq fuqhom.

Il-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport fih referenza għall-analiżi bażika li tindika x’qed jikkawża l-problemi tagħna: s’issa ma konniex kapaċi nħarsu fit-tul fl-ippjanar tat-trasport. Jiġifieri aħna nfittxu l-benefiċċji mmedjati u ninjoraw l-impatti fit-tul.
B’mod speċifiku taħt it-titlu “Intejbu l-ippjanar u d-diżinn għat-traport integrat u li jħares fit-tul” il-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport jgħid hekk: “……….. nistgħu naraw, mill-esperjenza, li l-politika u l-ippjanar tat-trasport f’Malta ġeneralment ħares lejn l-immedjat ( 4 sa 5 snin). In-nuqqas li tingħata importanza lejn l-ippjanar fit-tul ifisser li ma hemm l-ebda pjan integrat ibbażat fuq analiżi solida, b’miri ċari li jħarsu fit-tul. Dan wassal għal nuqqas ta’ direzzjonji strateġika u n-nuqqas ta’ kapaċità li jkunu indirizzati materji diffiċli bħall-kontroll fuq l-użu ta’ karozzi privati. Is-soċjetà Maltija bil-mod biex tiċċaqlaq, u dan f’kuntrast mal-ħtieġa għal azzjoni biex il-problema tat-traffiku tkun indirizzata kemm illum kif ukoll fil-futur. Dan iwassal biex il-vjaġġatur Malti jistenna li kulħadd jibdel id-drawwiet tiegħu ħalli hu jkun jista’ jibqa’ jsuq il-karozza. ” (sezzjoni 2.2.1 tal-Pjan Nazzjonali tat-Transport)

L-affarijiet ma jistgħux ikunu iktar ċari minn hekk. Il-problema hi waħda: d-dipendenza tagħna fuq il-karozzi. Toroq li jkunu usa’ jew itwal jistgħu jsolvu l-problema tal-konġestjoni tat-traffiku għal żmien limitat. Imma kif ġie repetutament ippruvat minn studji li saru f’diversi pajjiżi oħra, l-interventi fl-infrastruttura tat-toroq, fl-aħħar jispiċċaw biex iżidu l-konġestjoni tat-traffiku, u dan għax iżidu it-traffiku.

Min-naħa l-oħra, il-proċess biex jitnaqqas id-dipendenza fuq il-karozza jieħu l-ħin, u l-votanti mhux ser jieħdu ġost!

Sfortunatament, uħud mill-dawk li kienu kritiċi tal-proġett iffukaw fuq id-dettalji u ma ħarsux lejn il-proġett fih innifsu, fit-totalità tiegħu, u allura ma rnexxilhomx japprezzaw kemm hi kbira l-ħsara li ser jagħmel il-proġett fit-totalità tiegħu.

Dan il-proġett m’għandniex bżonnu. Neħtieġu li niffukaw fuq il-problema li ġiet evitata kontinwament għax il-politiċi fil-Parlament u fil-Gvern ma jridux jieħdu deċiżjonijiet li m’humiex popolari. Għal din ir-raġuni iroxxu l-flus u jonfquhom, taparsi qed isolvu l-problemi. Mhux flushom, ovvjament, imma dak li jiġbru mit-taxxi minn fuqna. Il-problemi tal-lum, b’hekk, ikunu trasferiti f’ħoġor il-ġenerazzjonjiet futuri.

Is-soluzzjoni meħtieġa ma tinvolvix ħafna xogħol infrastrutturali imma prinċipalment inizjattivi politiċi biex jinkoraġixxu l-użu ta’ mezzi alternattivi ta’ mobilità u dan flimkien ma inizjattivi li jippenalizzaw l-użu tal-karozzi privati.

Biex inkun ġust fil-kritika tiegħi ngħid li xi inizjattivi ittieħdu diġà u oħrajn bla dubju jitwettqu ukoll. Żdied sostanzjalment is-sussidju għat-trasport pubbliku. Ittieħdu inizjattivi diversi dwar aċċess b’xejn għat-trasport pubbliku lil diversi kategoriji u eventwalment hu ippjanat li dan ikun b’xejn għal kulħadd. Dan kollu tajjeb, iżda mhux biżżejjed. Flimkien ma dawn il-miżuri u bosta oħrajn hemm bżonn inizjattivi li jippenalizzaw l-użu tal-karozzi privati. Dawn jistgħu jinkludu żieda fit-taxxi applikabbli kemm għar-reġistrazzjoni tal-karozzi kif ukoll għall-liċenzji. Dan iwassal għal tnaqqis fin-numru tal-karozzi fit-toroq.

It-taxxi ambjentali jagħmlu l-ġid. Huma l-għodda politika li jekk użati tajjeb jgħinu biex tissolva l-problema tal-konġestjoni tat-traffiku illum.

Għax il-konġestjoni tat-traffiku hu l-prezz li l-ġenerazzjoni tal-lum qed tħallas għall-inkompetenza akkumulata tal-gvernijiet differenti fl-amministrazzjoni tal-politika tat-trasport. Sal-lum ġie evitat li jkunu ndirizzati l-problemi reali. Fir-realtà ma hemmx soluzzjonjijiet maġiċi: irridu naffrontaw il-problema. Sakemm nagħmlu hekk, il-problema tikber tista’.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : il-Ħadd 21 ta’ Lulju 2019

Central Link project: the cost of incompetence

We are all in agreement that traffic congestion is a massive problem.

However, it is indeed unfortunate that those responsible for implementing transport policy at times give the impression that they are not aware that, in approving the Central Link project they are ignoring the cause of the problem and instead they are focusing on the effects. The issue in question is not the length or width of our roads but the number of cars making use of them.

Our roads are bursting at the seams as a result of an ever-increasing number of cars that is out of proportion to the size and needs of our islands.

The debate on the Central Link project focused on many important issues: air quality, the protection of agriculture, the protection of trees, cycling lanes –  all of which are of marginal significance to the real issue. The cause of the problem is not the size of our roads but the number of cars on which we are so dependent.

The National Transport Master Plan contains a reference to the basic analysis which identifies our transport problems: a lack of long-term vision. We seek immediate gains and ignore the long-term impact.

Specifically, under the heading “Improve integrated and long-term strategic transport planning and design” the following is included in the National Transport Master Plan: “This objective has been defined since, historically, it can be seen from experience that the approach to transport planning and policy in Malta has generally been more short-term (4-5 years) in nature. The lack of importance given to long-term planning means that a long-term integrated plan based on solid analysis with clear objectives and targets is lacking. This has resulted in the lack of strategic direction and the inherent inability to address difficult issues such as private vehicle restraint. There is a strong reluctance for Maltese society to change but this is in contrast with the need for communal action to address the traffic problems existing now and in the future. This results in the Maltese traveller expecting that everyone else will change their travel habits so that they can continue to drive their car.” (section 2.2.1 of Transport Master Plan)

Can it be clearer than this? The problem is car dependency and nothing else. Congestion can be temporarily solved with new and wider roads. It has been proven by studies carried out in other countries that infrastructural interventions in the road network will, in the end, increase traffic congestion because they end up generating more traffic.

On the other hand, addressing car dependency adequately will take a long time and it comes with a voter backlash!

Unfortunately, some critics have focused on the details and ignored the holistic view of the whole project, and consequently failed to grasp the real damaging issues at stake. We do not need a central link. We require focusing on the central problem which has been avoided time and again because politicians in Parliament and in government do not want to make unpopular decisions. Hence, they throw money at problems, thereby postponing them into the future. Today’s problems being once more shifted onto future generations.

The solution required should not involve substantial infrastructural work but policy initiatives which encourage the use of alternative means of mobility, as well as initiatives that penalise the use of private cars. We need to use both carrots and sticks as effective policy instruments.

In fairness, some initiatives are being taken and others are undoubtedly in the pipeline. Subsidies applicable to public transport have been increased substantially. Initiatives regarding access to free public transport – presently for various categories but eventually free to everyone – are laudable carrots. On their own, however, they are not enough. They need to be coupled with adequate policy initiatives which penalise the use of private cars. This could include increase to car registration tax as well as in car circulation taxes.

Environmental taxation is not a dirty expression. It is a policy that holds the keys to the solution of our traffic congestion that we should be solving now.

Traffic congestion is, in reality, the cost that the present generation is paying for the accumulated incompetence of our governments to date in managing transport policy. So far, the real issues have been avoided. It is about time we realise that there is no magical solution: we have to face the real cause of our problem head-on and, until this happens, the problem will get worse.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 21 July 2019