The Malta Independent 17 October 2019, Thursday

Six sites identified for land reclamation

George M Mangion Tuesday, 17 September 2019, 09:36 Last update: about 30 days ago

It has been reported in the media that, in an as yet unpublished ERA study, six potential areas have been identified for land reclamation. These are Mġarr Harbour in Gozo, Buġibba and St Paul's Bay waterfront, Qalet Marku, Portomaso to Xgħajra, the spoilt ground area off Xgħajra and the Marsaxlokk harbour area.

As can be expected, the Portomaso to Xghajra area - identified as having a potential scale of medium to large - could be used for commercial and industrial/urban purposes, as well as for the creation of natural habitats.  

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Can we blame Mother Nature for bequeathing us with such a small archipelago which, over the centuries, has given birth to thousands of inhabitants? It is predicted by some that Malta's population may reach 700,000 by the year 2035.

Realistically for a small island state of 316 square kilometres and a population reaching half a million and planning to welcome three million visitors a year, it is worth considering land reclamation.  

In the coming years, a further 15,000 foreign workers are expected annually. As can be expected, the concept of land reclamation is resisted by environmentalists and NGOs who contend that such measures will upset Malta's ecological, scientific and archaeological habitat, along with other cultural values. Meanwhile, it follows that - due to its size, growing population density and burgeoning tourist sector - any political announcements to encourage land reclamation are welcomed by property magnates but resisted by environmentalists.

Others contend that, when it comes to urban planning, top priority should be given to social housing. Of course, this is what the Housing Authority is doing - inviting developers to come forward to form a joint venture to build new housing stock while, at the same time, financing the redevelopment and rehabilitation of derelict or empty houses.

This is a noble cause but, in my opinion, there is nothing to stop us from attracting new investment to emulate Singapore's success in land reclamation. Singapore (see picture), with a population density of 8,155 people per square kilometre, has opted for 24 per cent of land reclamation. Notwithstanding this concentration, Singapore prides itself on having more than 300 parks and four nature reserves. Singaporeans love their trees and almost 40 per cent of the country is covered by greenery.

Let us stop and consider how Malta can learn a trick or two from Singapore's green paradise. Facts speak for themselves: Malta ranks first by far among all EU member states in terms of population density, with an average of 1,507 people per square kilometre, compared with the EU average of 117.

 As an over-populated island, unfortunately not blessed with natural resources such as minerals, mountains or rivers, we have survived handsomely -developing our skills and productive abilities to finely balance our economy. Currently, with low unemployment, politicians remind us daily that we rank as the fastest growing economy in the EU.

Although we are blessed with economic success, we need more elbow room to be able to enjoy spatial living conditions. Understandably, there is a resistance on the part of coastal dwellers to any large-scale reclamation, because this would spoil their pristine views. This may be understandable, but something has to be sacrificed for the greater good in order to provide more elbow room.  

Now that both sides of Parliament have voted for a Gozo tunnel to be commissioned this will extenuate the problem of where to dump inert material because the old quarries are fast becoming full. Building debris from major scale projects such as Manoel Island, the DB project and the Gozo tunnel will instantly accumulate a huge mountain of waste that we cannot simply dump in the open sea.

The ERA study favours the site from Portomaso to Xgħajra, noting that the Qalet Marku site features seagrass, as a result of which it is listed as a protected habitat by the EU.  Naturally, the construction lobby is very much in favour of large-scale land reclamation and the coveted 'Madliena' golden mile can yield top dollar land for development. A reclamation policy will inevitably reduce pressure on ODZ use, but any development has to blend - and respect with sensitivity - the aesthetic value and historical significance of the chosen site.  

Ideally, the larger 'Portomaso to Xgħajra' coastline attracts a cross-party consensus to improve spatial opportunities for both for economic and social development. Linking the indicated stretch of this coastline to Smart City, and embellishing it with a modern promenade, will support multifarious commercial, cultural and recreation activities.

By comparison, just reflect on how we created a striving cruise liner industry in Valletta and Cottonera by building new jetties - on reclaimed land. Environmentalists need to balance their opposition and carefully consider the advantages of achieving a better standard of living away from the frenzied high-rise cacophony at Tigné and Paceville environs.  

Land reclamation is certainly not new to the Maltese Islands and here it is appropriate to mention with satisfaction the privatised Freeport terminals in Birzebbugia (which employ thousands) and the platform on which the Shanghai Electric power station stands.  Consider how reclamation improved the logistics at Msida: originally, when the parish church was built, it was facing the sea.

It is fair to say that there will always be an ecological price to pay and the worst affected - from a purely environmental standpoint - is obviously the seabed. Its integrity, in terms of physical characteristics, has been ruined due to the obliteration of any biodiversity thriving on a particular site.

The obvious collateral damage to the posidonia oceanica meadows (seagrass) that lie over large areas of seabed at shallow depths around Qalet Marku merits serious consideration. Needless to say, the ecological significance of such meadows is well known in terms of stabilising the seabed and serving as nurture grounds for an immense variety of ethnic species and other marine organisms.

In addition, any illegal dumping of inert waste out at sea to build retaining walls for breakwater extensions disturbs the water column, contributing to turbidity. Ecologists warn us that substantial dumping takes a considerable length of time to settle down as disturbed sediment on the seabed and inevitably lowers the photosynthetic capabilities of aquatic species in any particular site to the detriment of the marine ecosystem as a whole.

Another concern is the toxic element inherent in unsorted waste such as heavy metals, burnt oil or other types of chemicals that could be absorbed by the marine ecosystem and, in the process, go to contaminate food chains. The implications in terms of the resultant particulate matter levels in ambient air - for example the white and black specks of dust produced as a result of using heavy machinery to move material - cannot be underestimated.

As the government has the vision to build a tunnel - along with an ambitious reclamation policy - it needs to mollify the opposition from the environmentalist lobby. If it succeeds, then that will be the day when Malta can rise - like a latter-day Phoenix - out of the ashes.

 

 

George M. Mangion

[email protected]

 

George Mangion is a senior partner of audit and consultancy firm PKF and has over 25 years' experience in accounting, taxation, financial and consultancy services. His efforts have seen the firm being instrumental in establishing many companies in Malta and have placed PKF in the forefront of professional financial service providers on the Island.

 


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