Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor

 laudato_si_    Cry of the Earth


This is the title of Leonardo Boff’s seminal work on the inextricable link between social justice and environmental degradation, originally published in 1995.  Earlier, during the 1972 UN Human Environment Conference in Stockholm, it was also the rallying cry of India’s Prime Minister  Indira Gandhi who, on behalf of the developing world, forcefully insisted that poverty was inextricably linked with environmental degradation.  In Stockholm Mrs Gandhi had emphasised that “the environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty  –  how can we speak to those who live in villages and slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers and the air clean, when their own lives are contaminated at the source?”

This is also the underlying theme of the encyclical Laudato Sì published by Pope Francis last June. It is not just a seasonal Latin American flavour at Vatican City.  The earth’s tears are continuously manifested in different ways depending on the manner in which she is maltreated .

Environmental degradation has a considerable impact on the quality of life of  us all except, that is, for the quality of life of  the select few who pocket the profits by appropriating for themselves advantages (economic or otherwise) and lumping the negative impacts on the rest.

Environmental degradation is an instrument of social injustice. Consequently, enhancing the protection of the environment is also essential to restore social justice.

The water table is subject to continuous daylight robbery: over the years it has been depleted by both authorised and unauthorised water extraction.  What is left is contaminated as a result of the impact of fertilisers as well as surface water runoff from the animal husbandry industry. Theft and acute mismanagement  are the tools used in the creation of this injustice.

The Malta Freeport has been quite successful over the years in contributing to economic growth and job creation. The price for this has, however, been paid by Birżebbuġa residents – primarily through being subjected to continuous noise pollution on a 24/7 basis. Various residential units in the area closest to the Freeport Terminal are vacant and have been so for a considerable time. A noise report commissioned as a result of the conditions of the Terminal’s environmental permit will be concluded shortly. Hopefully, the implementation of its conclusions will start the reversal of the Freeport’s negative impacts on its neighbours.

The Freeport, together with various fuel storage outlets, the Delimara Power Station (including the floating gas storage facility which will soon be a permanent feature) as well as fish-farms have together definitely converted Marsaxlokk Bay into an industrial port. As a result of various incidents during 2015, spills in Marsaxlokk Bay signify that Pretty Bay risks losing its title permanently.   Fortunately, Birżebbuġa residents have been spared additional impact originating from minor ship and oil-rig repairs after they reacted vociferously to a decision by the MEPA Board to permit such work at the Freeport Terminal.

Public Transport has made minor improvements but nowhere near what is required. It is essential that Malta’s congested roads are mopped up of the excessive number of cars. Improving the road infrastructure will just make it easier for more cars to roam about in our roads, thereby increasing the scale of the problem.  The major consequences are a reduced ease of access and the deterioration air quality.

We will soon be in a position to assess the impact of two other major projects: a business hub at the Malta International Airport as well as a car-racing track with various ancillary facilities. The former will take up land at the airport carpark but will have considerable impact on the surrounding villages. The car-racing track may take up as much as 110 hectares of land outside the development zone and have a considerable impact on both nature and local residents in the areas close to where it will be developed.

The list of environmental impacts that we have to endure is endless.

I could also have included the impact of the Malta Drydocks and the consequent squeezing out of residents from the Three Cities as a result of its operations, primarily as a result of sandblasting, in the 1970s and 1980s. I could also have added the impact of the waste recycling plant at Marsaskala and the refusal of the authorities to finance studies on the impact of its operations on the health of residents, or else the impact of the operation of petrol stations close to and within various residential areas.

The size of the Maltese islands is limited. A number of the abovementioned  activities/developments  are essential, but others are not. However, it stands to reason that we should not bear the brunt of non-essential activities or developments. This should lead us to plan more carefully so that  the impacts of the activities that are essential are adequately addressed.

As evidenced by the above list, unfortunately over the years those taking decisions betrayed their responsibilities towards the common good, seeking, instead the interests of the select few thereby compounding social injustices.

This is Malta’s contribution to the accumulated tears of Mother Earth.


published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 January 2016

Traffic and the budget


The Budget acknowledges that traffic is a problem; unfortunately it fails to present a vision for the future, as Transport Malta has yet to carry out a consultation exercise.

Acknowledging that Malta’s roads are bursting at the seams is one small step in the right direction. Simultaneously, however, the Budget goes in to propose various measures, amongst which a couple which will definitely increase traffic. Providing more parking spaces, widening roads and improving junctions through the provision of flyovers will improve traffic flow, but it will also increase vehicular traffic.

It is not rocket science to conclude that a long-term plan to reduce car ownership is the only way forward. Currently, with around 341,000 cars on our roads, car ownership in Malta stands at 802 per thousand population. In contrast, the figure for the UK is 516, for Italy 682 and for the USA 786. If Malta’s car ownership profile were to be reduced to a reasonable 500 cars per 1000 population, this would signify that there are currently 130,000 more cars on our roads than is reasonable.

Given the short travelling distances in Malta, public transport should normally be sufficient for most of our needs. Car ownership has increased exponentially over the years as public transport was found lacking – even for such short distances and it  got worse over time.

The recently published White Paper by the Education Ministry pointed out how schools are affected by traffic congestion. They are not, in fact, a  cause of traffic congestion; rather, they are one of its many victims. Introducing a coordinated scheme providing school transport to serve both private and public schools could reducing traffic during rush hours.

The same could be stated in regarding the accessibility of industrial estates. If these were suitably serviced by public transport routes, a substantial reduction in traffic generation could be achieved.

The budget also refers to alternative means of transport. Reinforcing sea links across Grand Harbour between Valletta and the Three Cities as well as across Marsamxett Bay between Sliema and Valletta, could also contribute substantially to a reduction of traffic movements. Various attempts have been made over the years to restore such links but they were not as successful as had been hoped due to the fares having generally been considered as being on the high side.

Reintroducing these maritime links across the harbours on a sound footing would provide a long-term alternative public transport service that would substantially reduce travel time for all its users. However, it would not be reasonable to expect this to be completely self-financed, at least not until such time as it has attracted custom and established itself as a reliable and efficient public transport service.

The budget also encourages the use of small-capacity motorcycles by reducing their annual road licence fee to €10. This reduction would certainly be an encouragement, even though it could very easily been removed completely!  However, as was pointed out – even in the budget speech itself – such a measure can only be effective if it is reinforced by an improvement in the  behaviour of  road-users as well as through better maintenance of our roads.

Improving the use of the existing road infrastructure would be effective as a short-term measure. The proposal to introduce the “tidal lane” in a number of ours roads would  certainly reduce congestion through facilitating traffic flow. It will not, however, reduce vehicle movements.

The EU -funded study entitled The External Costs of Passenger and Commercial Vehicles Use in Malta carried out by the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta examined the economic impact of traffic in Malta. Such impact included not only time lost due to heavy traffic, but also excessive fuel consumed and the effect on health of the resulting air and noise pollution.  The estimated impact is substantial and add up to around four per cent of GDP. This would completely cancel out the projected 2016 increase of 3.6 per cent in Malta’s GDP.

The current extent of the traffic problem in Malta is due to the failure on the part of the state over a number of years. The mismanagement of public transport has created a vacuum, as a result of which cars have been permitted to take over our roads. Reversing the process is possible, but it will not be easy: it will require a coordinated approach and clear thinking. At the end of the day, all the measures taken must have one clear objective: replacing the private car as the preferred means of transport. It is the only way forward.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday, 18 October 2015

Local plans, and not regional


MEPA has embarked on a process which will lead to a revision of the seven existing  Local Plans. Five were approved in 2006. Two of them were approved earlier: the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan (1995) and the Grand Harbour Local Plan (2002).

With the exception of the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan (which regulates  Birżebbuġa, Marsaxlokk and their surrounding areas) all the Local Plans cover extensive areas. The Structure Plan, approved in 1990 and currently subject to revision, had identified the need for 24 Local Plans addressing urban areas, as well as other unspecified plans for Rural Conservation Areas. Initially when MEPA approved the Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan it started along this path but then it opted for plans which are more regional than local in nature.

Local Plans are necessary in order that planning policy is appropriately applied at a local level where one can focus on practical considerations. Though there may be overlaps between Local Plans covering similar areas there will also be variations resulting from the specific nature of the different localities. There will be inevitable similarities between, for example, a Local Plan addressing Valletta and Floriana on one hand and another one addressing the Three Cities due to the fact that both contain vast stretches of fortifications.  However the planning issues arising may also lead to different considerations both in respect of what is to be prohibited as well as in what ought to be encouraged.

Local Plans are not neutral policy instruments. Departing from the common need to ensure a continuous maintenance programme for the fortifications (which programme is currently in hand)  Local Plans may explore different potential uses to which the fortifications in two completely different areas may be put. This would be dependent on the infrastructural services in the area  and on the impacts generated by the potential use  on the surrounding amenities and localities. It would be much easier to ensure that this is done through two separate local plans, one specifically addressing Valletta and Floriana and the other addressing just the Three Cities.

It is not just an issue of fortifications. The large number of vacant properties, currently totalling  over 72,000 cannot be addressed adequately at a regional level. Different policies and different targets have to be identified at a local level as both the causes as well as the extent of the problem vary from one locality to another.

Boundaries of a number of Urban Conservation Areas (UCAs) were substantially revised in 2006 on the understanding that it is better to limit the extent of a UCA to that which is necessary and essential. Consequently it should stand to reason that a smaller UCA is much better to regulate and monitor.

A number of vacant properties lie within UCAs as it costs much more to bring such properties to an adequate state compatible to modern standards of living. This is an area which has already been explored in the last years with various fiscal incentives being offered to encourage rehabilitaton and the reuse of such properties. Much more needs to be done. The revision of the Local Plans is another opportunity to re-examine the way forward in tackling the ever increasing number of vacant properties. The proposed policies must however be focused and local in nature as otherwise they will fail to have any impact at all.

As emphasised by eNGOs  the Local Plans should also be an opportunity to consider the integration of environmental policy and its applicability at a local level. Whilst all environmental policy is of relevance to our localities two particular areas easily spring to mind: air quality and noise pollution.

Both air quality and noise control standards can be undoubtedly upgraded if action is taken at a local level. Traffic generated is a major contributor to both. Heavy traffic through residential areas has to be reduced. If the Local Plans address this issue they will be simultaneously contributing to a better air quality and less acoustic pollution in urban areas.

From declarations made in the past weeks it is obvious that one of the controversial issues to be tackled, (most probably in a plan addressing rural areas) would be agro-tourism.  This is a very sensitive matter . If the point of departure is to seek to establish new development zones on the pretext of tourism than such proposals would be unacceptable. If on the other hand such a Rural Plan addresses the use of existing  agricultural holdings aiming to maximise the use of their existing footprint, provide a different touristic experience as well as  provide alternative or additional employment opportunities to our agricultural communities then there is room for considerable discussion.

The Local Plans to be produced will have an impact on our quality of life for the next ten years. It is hence imperative to not only ensure a high level of participation in the consultation process but that the resulting proposals are given due consideration.

This article was published in The Times of Malta, Saturday August 10, 2013