Malta’s climate-change vulnerability

Malta is one of many climate-vulnerable islands.  Malta is not as vulnerable as the Maldives, which has an average altitude of 150 centimetres above sea-level and a highest natural point of 5.10 metres, as a result of which it is the world’s lowest lying country. Most of the Maldives will disappear once sea-level rise takes over. The Maldives is a touristic destination in the Indian Ocean. 

If the Paris 2015 Climate Summit target of restraining temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius above the pre-industrial age temperature is achieved, we will still face a sea level rise of around 50 centimetres. If on the other hand this target is exceeded but the temperature rise is still below 2 degrees Celsius the sea level rise will be close to three metres.

The current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, emphasises the IPCC report issued last Monday, if unchecked, points to an estimated 2.7-degree Celsius temperature increase by 2100 which increase could signify a substantial rise in sea level.

Where do we go from here? It is the answer which level headed climate diplomats will seek to hammer out in Glasgow this coming November, and in the preparatory meetings leading thereto.

It is clear that at the present emission rate of greenhouse gases, the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold could be reached as soon as 2030. Only immediate reduction of emissions will reduce the impacts which are already evident all around us: excessive increase in temperature extremes, increased frequency of intensive storms, prolonged drought in areas and floods in others. We will have to face more of this together with a sea-level rise until such time that we can reduce it through adopting climate friendly policies and lifestyles.

We need to work in tandem with nature if we expect to stand a chance in mitigating the havoc which awaits us. This is the objective of the carbon neutrality debate: reducing emissions in order that the damage done to date is contained the soonest and hopefully reversed, even if partially. In this process everyone must do his bit. We should not wait for others to act and expect that we are exempted from doing anything.

Our vulnerability as an island should be convincing enough that it is in our interest that we not only take action ourselves but also that we convince others about it. 

In order to reach this objective, we need to align our behaviour with what nature expects: the specific requirement is to have a climate friendly economy. Tourism and transport are two areas of activity which need to be cut down in size as they are among the major contributors of the Maltese islands to climate change.

Tackling tourism adequately will be painful. We must however realise once and for all that having 3 million tourists annually, most of them flying over, is not on. Their cumulative impacts are substantial not just on the local environment but even on a regional and global level. Now is the time to do it when we are in the process of recovering from the COVID-19 devastation. We should not aim for business-as-usual but should opt specifically against mass tourism and in favour of quality tourism at a much-reduced level. It would be less painful if we learn the COVID-19 lessons and ensure that tourism is more climate friendly.  In this respect if we keep on encouraging low-fare policies we will continue the process of digging our own grave.

Addressing land transport is also imperative. In a small country such as ours it should be obvious that everywhere is within easy reach. The Transport Strategy in fact clearly points out that over 50 per cent of car trips in the Maltese islands are for short distances of a duration of less than 15 minutes. There are better alternatives to using private cars for such very short distances. Beyond short distances, nowhere on the islands is so far away. Public transport when efficiently organised could go a long way to solving the contribution of transport to climate change.

Tackling climate change requires the courage to take tough decisions. I will not be critical of the initiative to have a carbon neutral public garden or making available grants and subsidies to encourage roof gardens! Such initiatives are however insignificant when viewed in context of what needs to be done. 

Malta is very vulnerable. A sea-level rise, even if this is at the lower end of what is being estimated, would seriously jeopardise our coastal infrastructure. It would also create havoc in a number of coastal settlements. We cannot keep postponing decisions into the future.  We have an ethical responsibility towards future generations: the planet we have in trust should be in better shape when they take over. The longer we take to decide on the action required, the more painful the consequences.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 14 August 2021

Il-Kunsilli Lokali : qed nagħtu kas tagħhom ?


Nhar is-Sibt kien ta’pjaċir għalija li nindirizza l-laqgha plenarja tal-Kunsilliera Lokali li tkun organizzata kull sena mill-Assoċjazzjoni tal-Kunsilli Lokali. Din is-sena din il-laqgħa saret fil-Lukanda Corinthia ġewwa Ħ’Attard.

Osservajt illi fid-dokument konsultattiv tal-Istrateġija Nazzjonali dwar l-adattament għall-Impatti tal-Klima l-Kunsilli Lokali la jissemmew u l-anqas jidher li hemm rwol maħsub għalihom.

Meta nqiesu illi uħud mill-impatti tal-klima jolqtu direttament lill-lokalitajiet dan jistona. Ġibt l-eżempju tal-kapaċita tal-infrastruttura tat-toroq tagħna li tilqa’ għal bidla fl-intensita’ u l-frekwenza tax-xita.  Xi ħaġa li naraw b’għajnejna ta’ spiss, kull meta jkollna maltempata mhux tas-soltu kif kellna reċentement.

Għad hawn awtoritajiet u kummissjonijiet maħtura mill-Gvern li m’humiex konxji biżżejjed tar-rwol importanti li għandhom il-Kunsilli Lokali. Din il-Kummissjoni dwar il-Klima hi waħda minnhom.

F’Birżebbuġa per eżempju kellu jkun l-intervent tas-Segretarju Parlmentari Chris Said biex il-MEPA tieqaf min-negozjati  li kienet għaddejja mal-Port Ħieles dwar il-kundizzjonijiet ta’ permess ambjentali. Dan sar minħabba li dawn in-negozjati kienu għaddejjin mingħajr l-involviment tal-Kunsill Lokali ta’ Birżebbuġa. Issa li l-Kunsill ġie involut in-negozjati bdew mill-ġdid u qed jiġu ndirizzati issues li qabel mhux neċessarjament li kienu qed jitqiesu bl-istess profondita’.

Hemm iżda eżempji oħra li jixhdu illi mhux il-Kunsilli Lokali kollha huma impenjati bl-istess mod.

Meta l–MEPA ħarget il-permess għall-inċineratur tal-biċċerija il-Kunsilli Lokali tal-Marsa u r-Raħal Ġdid ġew mogħtija id-dritt li a spejjes tal-Wasteserve jistabilixxu sistema alternattva għall-monitoraġġ tal-arja fl-inħawi, kif ukoll d-dritt l jqabbdu espert li jgħinhom biex jifhmu l-informazzjoni li tkun ippubblikata dwar l-emissjonijiet. Il-parti relevanti tal-permess fil-fatt tgħid hekk :

”   1.3.2     Public access to emission data (most recent half hour average values and daily average values plus results from the most recent discontinuous measurements) shall be enabled via Internet.

1.3.3     The Marsa and Paola Local Councils may, jointly and in agreement with MEPA, establish an independent ambient air monitoring system covering particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, as well as any other parameters that may be agreed with MEPA, at the expense of the permit holder.

1.3.4     The Marsa and Paola Local Councils may, in agreement with MEPA, jointly appoint an independent expert to assist in the interpretation of the emission data made publicly available pursuant to condition 1.3.2.”

Huwa ċar mill-kritika li ssir għall-operazzjoni ta’ dan l-inċineratur illi dawn iż-żewġ Kunsilli Lokali għadhom m’humiex konxji minn dan id-dritt li għandhom u s’issa jidher li m’għamlux użu minnu.

Jidher illi hemm bżonn illi l-Assoċjazzjoni tal-Kunsilli Lokali tgħin lil dawn il-Kunsilli Lokali u oħrajn bħalhom biex jiżviluppaw il-kapaċita tagħhom biex ikunu jistgħu jkunu ta’ servizz aħjar.

The government must lead by example

The consultation re­port issued by the Climate Change Committee for Adaptation serves as a good basis for discussion on issues which have not been given sufficient attention over the years.

One of the issues tackled is that concerning the absence of rainwater cisterns in dwellings. Recommendation 35 deals with the matter.

It consists of three proposals. First, it emphasises the need to implement the existing legal provisions and then goes on to suggest the year 2007 as a cut-off point. It does this by referring to the uptake by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority of provisions relative to rainwater storage. Finally, it proceeds with recommending a one-off flood fine on those properties which, not having a rainwater cistern, contribute to flooding during heavy rainfall.

The recommendation ignores the fact that the duty to collect rainwater in cisterns was not introduced in 2007 but way back in 1880 through legislation. So the point of departure in this discussion is that all residential properties constructed after 1880 should be provided with a rainwater cistern.

The 1880 legislation was an important milestone. The provision of damp proofing, measures emphasising the importance of ventilation, the provision of an adequately sized rainwater cistern and many other matters were introduced. They are incorporated in article 97 of the Code of Police Laws. The relevant legislative provision on rainwater cisterns is regulated by the director of public health and states that “every house shall also have a cistern of a capacity of at least three cubic metres for every five square metres of the surface of the floor of each room of such house”.

One could justifiably argue that the rainwater cistern dimensions resulting from the above quoted legal provision are on the high side and that after 130 years they need revisiting. When this legal provision was introduced, the most common type of dwelling was one of two floors.

Applying the law’s dimensions to blocks of flats would result in very large water cisterns, of such dimensions that would never be fully utilised. The existing dimensions can be revisited by referring to the footprint of a building rather than to its total floor space. This would result in dimensions that are reasonable and achievable given today’s predominant building typology. It would also iron out discrepancies between the dimensions for rainwater cisterns in the Code of Police Laws and those indicated elsewhere. The establishment of the year 2007 as a cut-off point would exempt dwellings constructed before that date from shouldering their contribution to flooding.

This would discriminate and would mean that a substantial number of dwellings are left free to continue contributing to the flooding problem.

Recommendation 35 suggests the introduction of a one-off flood fine to be paid by the owners of those properties which do not have a rainwater cistern. A one-off fine will not solve anything unless it is substantial. The fine should be payable annually until such time that a rainwater cistern of an appropriate size is introduced.

How should one proceed? As a first point no one should be exempt. To reduce flooding, rainwater should be collected in every dwelling.

Secondly, it has to be recognised that, in some cases, a solution may be beyond the financial means of current owners of buildings without rainwater cisterns. In such cases some form of financial assistance should be considered as the politics of climate change should not be socially regressive.

A third consideration would be that in a number of cases the construction of a rainwater cistern may not be technically possible. In such cases the solution may well be the pooling of resources to construct communal rainwater reservoirs or to fund the maintenance of existing ones. Such funds could be administered by local councils with the owners of defaulting properties being obliged to contribute an amount equivalent to what it would cost to construct a rainwater cistern in their property.

The tangible results of such an initiative would be manifold. Having an alternative source of water some would be in a position to reduce their water bills. With less rainwater flowing in our streets flooding can be substantially reduced and our streets will be generally safer both during as well as immediately after a storm. We will also end up with less sewage overflowing into our streets if rainwater is collected instead of ending up in the public sewer. Finally, our sewage purification plants will have a reduced load during storms thereby reducing their running costs.

Alternattiva Demokratika has been emphasising the above for a number of years.

A good point to start implementation would be for the government to set the example by embarking on an exercise of providing rainwater cisterns in all government-constructed housing estates. Most of them have none.

If the government leads by example the rest will slowly follow.

Published in The Times of Malta : Saturday 13th November 2010