During a business trip to Singapore, I was fascinated by its success in many sectors notwithstanding the fact that it possesses no mineral wealth.
Singapore is roughly twice the size of Malta but houses over five million citizens in a densely-populated area. It comes as no surprise that over the past decades Singapore has invested heavily in land reclamation, including a massive freeport and an international airport.
Malta is contemplating using the massive tonnage of debris generated from the Gozo tunnel to a practical use. The controversial topic has recently hit the deadlines after parliament unanimously approved (except for the two PD MPs) to go ahead with the tunnel project.
As can be expected, the subject is highly contested by environmentalists and NGOs who argue against land reclamation because it will upset the ecological, scientific and archaeological habitat.
It follows that due to Malta’s size, its growing population density and unique island biodiversity any political announcement to encourage land reclamation are welcomed by property magnates.
Others claim capital for such a mammoth project should be diverted to solve the dire problem of lack of social housing.
This bone of contention is counter balanced by the suggestion towards re-use of abandoned dwellings to accommodate social housing for the elderly and potential redevelopment of some of these dwellings which are old and unfit for habitation. Of course, this is already done by the Housing Authority that is inviting developers to come forward and enter a joint venture to finance the development costs to rehabilitate derelict houses.
This is a noble cause but in the meantime, there is nothing to stop us from utilising the resource of abundant debris resulting from either tunnelling or building a metro.
It is no exaggeration to say that Malta as an island with relatively soft rock has suffered continuous erosion by mother nature over the millennia.
Being contrite, we must admit that with a third of the island covered with concrete we can enjoy more elbow room for ample spatial living.
The Planning Authority commissioned independent consultants to carry out two major studies on land reclamation. One dates back to 2005 that explored the idea of disposing construction waste at sea, and another completed in 2007 exploring the feasibility of land reclamation at two specific areas.
It remains a mystery why the PA had in the past discouraged the environmental and economic feasibility of land reclamation within our coastal zone. To quote an ideal site, we can mention the coastline near Qalet Marku.
Here, one assumes that building debris from both the City Centre (DB) project and the Gozo tunnel can be deployed to form a cluster of islands.
Unofficially, we heard that ERA maintains that the coastline at Xagħjra is a preferred site since at Qalet Marku there are more environmental objections. Naturally, the construction lobby is very much in favour of sustainable work linked to large scale land reclamation work, which on its own can secure jobs.
The Prime Minister is encouraging the private sector to come forward with ideas and this is welcome. Any large-scale reclamation will inevitably stimulate the regeneration of key areas but designs have to be sensitive to aesthetic value and historical significance.
Ideally, the area coincides with functional considerations of a busy tourist centre. Perhaps that is why the Xagħjra coastline was chosen.
This means linking it to Smart City with a modern promenade, supporting multifarious commercial, cultural and recreation activities, albeit residents are vociferous in their protests against such a plan.
But we must reflect on how Malta created a thriving cruise liner industry in Valletta and the Cottonera jetties – both construed on reclaimed land.
In an ideal world, environmentalists need to tone down their opposition and carefully weigh the advantages of better paid jobs benefitting from a heavy investment to reclaim land from the sea. Certainly, land reclamation is not new to the Maltese islands and here I can mention with pride the success of Marsa Sports Grounds built entirely on reclaimed land, the sea originally reaching inland as far as Qormi since ancient times.
Turning to Msida, one can point to another prime example of a major land reclamation project while not forgetting the massive Freeport terminals in Birżebbuġa and the platform on which the Delimara power station stands.
Moving on to the advantages of reclamation, one remembers with nostalgia how reclamation changed the logistics at Msida. Originally when the parish church was built it was facing the sea. Really and truly, there will always be a price to pay when inert waste, usually from construction and demolition sources, is used for land reclamation. The hardest hit, from a purely environmental standpoint, is obviously the seabed, which not only loses its integrity in terms of physical characteristics but any biodiversity thriving on a particular site can be wiped out altogether.
The obvious collateral damage to the Posidonia meadows (seagrass) that lie over large tracts of seabed at various depths around the coastline merits serious consideration as 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 fish species and other marine organisms. Also, any excessive dumping of inert waste at sea to build retaining walls for land extensions is aesthetically unpleasing as it disturbs the water column by contributing to turbidity.
Ecologists warn us that such dumping takes ages to eventually settle down as sediment on the seafloor and it lowers the photosynthetic capabilities of aquatic species in that 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 chemical species 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, white and black dusts as a result of heavy machinery to move material is not to be under estimated.
Now that the government is waiting for completion of scientific studies before issuing tenders for the Gozo tunnel project there is some speculation where the millions be sourced.
The tunnel is certainly a controversial topic that has long grasped the imagination of politicians and will eventually challenge structural engineers to design a commercially sustainable link. If we optimise the resource out of future development projects and use them wisely as land extensions, then that will be the day when Malta may rise as a Phoenix out of the water and share the success of a novel Singapore in the Med.