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!

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Sustainable Localities & Regionalisation

published on 21 June 2008

 

by Carmel Cacopardo

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To what extent are our localities sustainable ? This issue was brought up in pre-budget public discussions organised by the Ministry of Finance. The idea was floated as to what extent is it desirable to attract business to non-traditional localities in view of the fact that in 2007 six localities (Valletta, Sliema, Birkirkara, Mosta, St Paul’s Bay and Victoria) attracted 30 per cent of the 56,811 enterprise units functioning within these shores.

It was stated that the benefits of spreading the enterprise units (existing and new ones) in non-traditional areas would include the reduction of travelling time between home and work. This may also, however, shift traffic congestion depending on the type of enterprise involved, the resulting intensity of activity and the localities affected. A need for infrastructural improvements could build up in the newly-identified areas relative to road network, supply of water and electrical power as well as waste disposal. Dependent on the type of enterprise attracted, the friction between competing land uses would also be brought closer to a larger number of residences, possibly squeezing out residents in the process.

The discussion as to what makes a locality sustainable is healthy as it focuses on the maxim “think global, act local”, signifying that, while environmental impacts are being felt at a global (or regional) level, they are, however, created at a local level where remedial action should be taken.

Localities in other countries address sustainability at a local level through implementing what is known as Local Agenda 21. As a result of the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the United Nations approved a document entitled Agenda 21. A Blueprint For Action For Global Sustainable Development Into The 21st Century.

In this document the issues to be addressed in order to assist in the transition from the existing mess to a more sustainable state of affairs are explained in 40 sections, section 28 addressing the role of local authorities. It is stated that “Because so many of the problems and solutions being addressed by Agenda 21 have their roots in local activities, the participation and cooperation of local authorities will be a determining factor in fulfilling its objectives”.

The experience of local authorities in other countries provides many examples. It highlights the difficulty created by size and, consequently, points to the question as to whether in Malta we require another layer of democratic institutions, at regional level, to which a number of responsibilities could be devolved: some currently pertaining to the national government, others to local authorities. This would be in addition to local councils, complementing their functions and, thereby, reinforcing the devolution of public administration.

Regionalisation has already been referred to in the past months as one of the possible solutions to the management of waste on the island.

This argument cropped up when addressing the issue as to whether the Sant’Antnin recycling plant at Marsascala should process all the solid waste generated on the island or whether it should be one of a number still to be determined. Within that context the proposal was made that the management of waste should be regionalised thereby applying the proximity principle to waste management: that is managing the waste generated as close as possible to its source.

Regionalising waste management would create a more visible link between cause and effect, thereby contributing to a more effective management of waste in these islands. The regional authority would assume the role of the operator, with the central government taking on the role of the regulator.

Subsidiarity would also be given a realistic opportunity to succeed as the difficulties encountered by some local councils due to a lack of economies of scale could be effectively tackled in most if not in all cases.

A proposal for the identification of the regions is already indirectly available. This is contained in the seven Mepa Local Plans, namely: the Grand Harbour Region, the Southern Region, the Central Region, the North West Region, the North Harbour Region, the Marsaxlokk Bay Region, Gozo and Comino.

Regional government could devolve responsibility for agriculture, education, land use planning (local plan implementation), projects of a regional importance, the administration of regional sports complexes, regional health centres, inter- and intra-regional transport and social security from national government. Local government could shed responsibility for waste management, the cleaning of non urban areas and the maintenance and management of beaches, which could be a regional responsibility.

The sustainability of our localities is intrinsically linked to their further democratisation. Creating an additional democratic layer and assigning specific responsibilities thereto would help in the amelioration of the running of this country. It would increase accountability as well as ensure more value for the taxpayer’s money.

L-iżvilupp sostenibbli u l-Kunsilli Lokali f’Malta

 

Stavros Dimas, il-Kummissarju tal-Unjoni Ewropea responsabbli għall-Ambjent, fil-blog tiegħu ta’ nhar is-26 ta’ Mejju 2008 ppostja kitba intitolata Green Cities for Life.

 

Dimas jikkummenta fuq dikjarazzjoni iffirmata minnu u minn Paddy Bourke, Sindku ta’ Dublin u President tal-Union of the Capital Cities of the European Union u minn Gino van Begin Direttur Reġjonali tal-għaqda internazzjonali Local Government for Sustainability.

 

B’hekk qed tingħata bidu għall-kompetizzjoni għal environmentally friendly cities, inizzjattiva li ħadha Jüri Ratas ex-Sindku ta’ Tallinn u presentement Viċi President tal-Parlament tal-Estonja.

 

 

Kemm għandu rwol il-ħarsien tal-ambjent fil-Kunsilli Lokali Malti ?  Fl-opinjoni tiegħi tweġiba tvarja bejn Kunsill u ieħor. Anke il-livell tal-impenn ivarja ħafna.

 

Fittixt ukoll biex nara ftit il-Kunsilli Lokali Maltin kemm jagħtu importanza lill-iżvilupp sostenibbli. Meta ippruvajt nara liema huma l-ibliet madwar id-dinja li huma imsieħba fl-għaqda internazzjonali  Local Government for Sustainability    sibt li ma kien hemm l-ebda Kunsill Lokali minn Malta. Hemm 162 imsieħeb mill-Ewropa Ċentrali u tal-Punent  iżda l-ebda wieħed minn dawn m’hu minn Malta.

 

 

Fid-dawl tad-dikjarazzjonijiet tal-Gvern illi l-politika tiegħu matul il-ħajja ta’ dan il-Parlament ser tkun ibbażata fuq il-kuncett ta’ żvilupp sostenibbli għandna nistennew li jkun hemm kambjament għall-aħjar matul ix-xhur li gejjin.