The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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Eco-Gozo - pie in the sky?

Emmanuel J. Galea Sunday, 7 January 2024, 08:45 Last update: about 4 months ago

The PN administration launched ‘Eco-Gozo’ project in 2012. To remain sustainable and competitive, Gozo needed a long-term strategy that preserves its unique appeal. 

Giovanna Debono, former PN Minister for Gozo, emphasised the importance of preserving Gozo’s lifestyle, environment, resources, culture, and identity to attract visitors and investors.

“Gozo will become an eco-island by 2020, thanks to the support of a passionate and committed sustainable community,” Giovanna Debono had said, highlighting the need for education, economic development, and social progress to enhance the quality of life in Gozo.

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Skip ahead 11 years. Target date already missed by three years; things have turned out differently. The PN began this project intending to gain momentum. The current government has shown a lack of commitment to well-planned long-term environmental strategies since being elected in 2013.

In June 2017, Joseph Cutajar, representing the Eco-Gozo regional development directorate, stated that the Eco-Gozo concept is based on tangible actions focused on sustainable development pillars: economy, environment, society, culture, and identity.

The Eco-Gozo strategy was flawed from the start. The GBC (Gozo Business Chamber) suggested building a Gozo-Malta tunnel during the Gonzi administration in 2012, asserting that it was financially workable and possible to accomplish. These claims lacked substantial evidence from the GBC. The President of the GBC (now chairperson of the Gozo Regional Development Authority) believed that the private sector should build and operate this tunnel. He expected that the capital investment would be recovered quickly through usage tolls, which he believed would be comparable to or cheaper than ferry fares. 

According to ‘Malta Today’ in October 2015, the completion of the tunnel would shift Malta’s traffic problem to Gozo, potentially diminishing its appeal as a unique tourist destination. Besides the obvious, the Gozo tunnel project will link the two islands in various other ways. This will be the final blow to Eco-Gozo’s demise.

The Gozo Regional Development Authority (GRDA) launched the Gozo Regional Development Strategy for 2023-2027 in September 2023. This so called strategy includes the section titled ‘re-examining the need for the Gozo tunnel.’ It mentions that they have made significant investments over the years to improve connectivity, including increasing the frequency of the Gozo Channel service and introducing a fast ferry service.

Like a sugar-coated pill, this statement may taste unpleasant once the coating wears off. This government solved the urgent need of a fourth ferry by providing Gozitans with a 30-year-old Greek ferry, the ‘Nikolaus’, on a wet lease, costing €13,000 daily. The PN administration built the ferries currently in operation, but they are now considered “fuel guzzlers” and require gradual replacement. The fast ferry service is not worth mentioning, except Castille gave it to two operators who have now merged their services for a more cost-effective outcome, and they are now receiving €6 million subsidy annually for operational support.

Recognising that they couldn’t afford the cost of the Gozo tunnel project and that no private company will take on the risk, the GRDA reluctantly put the highly promoted Gozo-Malta tunnel project on hold, despite it being unpopular with majority of Gozitan residents. The opposition changed their stance on the tunnel project, depending on the outcome of a  referendum for Gozitan residents.

The Eco-Gozo concept involves the integration of other projects. One project that falls into this category is the Alter Aqua programme. This was a multi-stakeholder, two-phase programme which has brought together the Gozo Ministry, the Eco-Gozo Project, the Global Water Partnership-Mediterranean, the Coca-Cola Foundation and General Soft Drinks, the local bottling partner of all brands of The Coca-Cola Company in Malta.

Financial support was by a grant of €575,000 from the Coca-Cola Foundation and co-funding of €315,000 from the Ministry for Gozo to support water sustainability. 

“The Alter Aqua programme is a perfect fit for the government’s sustainable island vision,” ex PL Gozo Minister Anton Refalo had said in May 2014. 

As part of the initial phase of the Alter Aqua project, rainwater harvesting systems were set up in the schools of Kerċem, Sannat, Żebbuġ, and Għarb. The reinstatement of rainwater harvesting systems took place in schools in Sannat, Xagħra, San Lawrenz, and the Gozo Experimental Farm. A functional grey water reuse system has been implemented at the Gozo Football Stadium. The construction of rubble walls in Ramla Valley was aimed at managing stormwater and offer various advantages.

In a sponsored article in the local media, John Borg, Permanent Secretary at the Gozo Ministry, emphasised the upcoming implementation of more ambitious environmental projects in Gozo. The Sustainable Urban Development Fund will provide approximately €60 million in investment to the island, and they will use it in the most beneficial way possible.

Despite this after 11 years, with 10 years under this government and three PL ministers for Gozo, the Eco-Gozo project remains stuck in its early stages. The capital projects started by this ministry are running late and exceeding the budget. With each passing year, the roads worsen with no cycle lanes. Traffic and parking in Victoria are causing misery for drivers and pedestrians, besides the emissions emitted.

The completion of the Mgarr extension, Mgarr harbour underpass, Victoria bypass, Marsalforn breakwater, Gozo courts, and New Gozo Hospital may never happen. Pavements are becoming more crowded with catering outlets, limiting pedestrian space.

The administration’s efficient handling of the Eco-Gozo project is evident on the website “Eco-Gozo - a better Gozo” splashing on the front page: 3500 trees planted, 24 organised clean-ups, 25 kms of restored rubble walls (concrete walls with globigerina limestone cladding costing about three times the market rate), and Gozo events dating back to July 2022. There’s no sign of the last update on this website.

But the ministry, despite its shortcomings, allocated contracts in 2022 worth €375,900 to two Gozo-based artists, Vincent Caruana and Austin Camilleri. Both artists created large bronze monuments, with Caruana’s to be installed at the Marina in Mġarr and Camilleri’s (pending approval) near the centuries old Xwejni Saltpans limits of Zebbug.

Implementing sustainable transport is on the right track, although introduction of electric buses took considerable time to happen. After purchasing six electric buses from Tumas Group in 2019 for €1.7 million, the same supplier provided the charging points two years later through a 'direct order' of €217,000.

The average capital expenditure for the Eco-Gozo project from 2019 averaged about €1.3 million annually. This is not enough to implement all the requirements towards the objectives of this project. Eco-tourism lacks the right employment skills and training. The successful implementation of sustainable transport, agriculture, accommodation, nature conservation, and education need to be given serious consideration to make Gozo a model of eco-tourism. Gozo urgently needs these continuous efforts and financial support to become and remain a top-destination for eco conscious travellers.

In less than five years, developers destroyed beyond recognition the harmonious set up of Marsalforn and Xlendi seaside resorts. How is it that the Gozo Ministry has not as yet succeeded after 11 years to introduce and implement the qualities of a future sustainable Eco-Gozo?

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