Land reclamation – an epitaph for Posidonia meadows

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today, 19th Decemeber, 2014.

In the past 25 years, the PN governments have relied on the construction industry to kick-start the economy by expanding development zones and relaxing building heights, particularly at Tigne Point, but never sanctioned land reclamation.

During these festive times many try to forget the political polarisation in the media and the virtuous try to live the remaining days of 2014 with family and friends in a tranquil mood. The latter do their best to share their blessings as another year of toil and hard work is about to finish. Upon closer reflection one cannot neglect to observe how a sum exceeding one million euros has been dutifully pledged to fill the coffers of both political parties – a paradox since according to the Opposition the computation of the COLA annual cost of living adjustment was too low and an insult to boot.

This notwithstanding, citizens have quickly forgotten any negative remarks on the miserable COLA handout and rose to the occasion by pledging generous cash donations. This may be a reflection of how fickle the electorate is and how easily they forget the heavy criticism from the Opposition lambasting the meager 58.3 cents weekly COLA increase. But it is the season to be jolly so they quickly threw caution to the wind and honoured their pledges, heeding the call of the respective leaders to help the party balance its deficit. It reflects a sign of a feel good factor as employment levels are high, energy tariffs reduced and glossy publications issued free with weekend newspapers tempt readers to indulge in buying expensive gifts – including timepieces – some starting from €22,000.

This is not to mention fully booked champagne parties in the New Year, hosted at a number of lavish “Paris styled” venues starting at €200 a head. Can this bonanza be skin deep or is there a true feeling of optimism in the air, such that this year more of the jet set are planning to spend their NewYear celebrations in expensive skiing resorts in the Swiss Alps – a vacation that makes them feel like joining the haute couture crowd. Surely this season is blessed with well wishers and it is not an exaggeration to say that the economy is on the rebound and next year the budget proposals (unless they are sabotaged by unforeseen circumstances) point to an interesting panorama of new initiatives that taken at the flood will lead to fortune.

One of these initiatives is the government intention to invite the private sector to participate in a number of exciting projects which can be implemented on a profitable basis using the Private Public Partnership template (PPP). One such PPP is land reclamation. Scarcity of land, high population density and mountains of stone waste are some of the driving factors behind a debatable notion to build more structures on untouched areas presently covered by sea. Simply put this is a process of using infill to create new land from the sea, which since Independence we have seen very useful extensions of the coastline added to meet the requirements of our expanding ports, ranging from Birżebbugia to Ċirkewwa, without any noticeable negative impacts on water quality for swimming or sea life.

This is not new to the Maltese islands. One may mention a few examples starting with the Marsa Sports Grounds which is standing on entirely reclaimed land, the sea originally reaching inland as far as Qormi since ancient times. Msida is another example of a major land reclamation project on a local scale, together with the Freeport in Birzebbuga measuring 200,000 square metres and currently generating €170 million, providing 2,000 jobs and the platform on which the Delimara power station stands. Not to mention a host of micro-scale private and public projects around the coast, which also include, say, an impressive and highly profitable cruise liner terminal in Grand Harbour. There can never be any bone of contention about the economic benefits the country derives from the cruise liner industry and, therefore, in this specific context, the author thinks it is economically feasible to reclaim land from the sea provided adequate safeguards are taken by operators.

Unfortunately in the past little or no public consultation was held when after the war the Msida creek was reclaimed to accommodate increased traffic flow in an area facing the church. It is true that there will always be a price to pay when inert waste, usually from construction and demolition sources, is arbitrarily dumped into the sea (here one may recall the scandal of the dumping of tons of inert material by MiDI consortium when excavating the massive underground car park in Tigne point). 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 that is reclaimed is wiped out altogether.

As mentioned before one can never overlook the irreparable damage to ever present Posidonia oceanica meadows (seagrass) that lie over large tracts of seabed at various depths around the coastline. It is a paradox how many consider the masses of dead Posidonia grass washed ashore on our beaches as a pollutant, yet this is highly regarded by marine biologists as an essential safe haven to breeding fish and other marine organisms. By definition Posidonia is a keystone species that thrives in clear waters, mostly outside ports, which forms a web-like matte anchored to the sandy seabed. Readers may remember that it was Dr Gonzi the former Nationalist prime minister, who in 2005 first declared his government’s intention to embark on a project to create artificial islands on the Maltese coastline.

It later transpired that no such islands were approved by MEPA, citing the huge volume of construction debris needed would either mean importing it from abroad or ‘stepping up efforts to generate it locally’. Under the Gonzi administration there were a number of studies conducted by MEPA on the subject which by and large found that all sites were deemed as being too expensive: the exception was a site on the northern part of the coastline between Marsaskala and Ricasoli, near the present Smart City development. As can be expected the environmentalists lobby were adamant that no land reclamation is sanctioned since this disturbs the ecosystem, particularly the underwater Posidonia meadows –protected by EU Habitat directives. Land reclamation on the stretch of coastline at Bahar ic-Caghaq was also completely excluded for ecological reasons, even though the study confirmed that this area would be the most economically viable for reclamation because of the relative shallow water and proximity to inert material dumped over the years at Maghtab.

Most of all, environmentalists advised against any dumping as it disturbs the water column contributing to its turbidity as the material gradually settles down as sediment on the seafloor. This disturbance lowers the photosynthetic capabilities of aquatic species in that site to the detriment of the marine ecosystem as a whole. Developers disagree, saying that this negative effect would be expected to be localised, but ecologists warn about complications should the inert waste be not so ‘inert’ and be a carrier for toxic materials such as heavy metals, oils or other chemical species that could be absorbed by the marine ecosystem and contaminate food chains. The quality of ‘inert’ waste to be dumped is therefore an issue that cannot be adequately supervised and abuses can be expected by unscrupulous contractors. Builders prize the idea for the ease with which they might dispose of their stone waste, if permitted to dump it offshore as part of a grander design to extend building space for exclusive luxury properties built on premium sites across the waters, allowing for yacht marinas as was the case when the old Hilton site was sanctioned to be converted into a luxury marina, a smaller hotel and impressive condominiums of upmarket apartments.

Back to the subject of land reclamation environmentalists point to abuses and dark green lobbyists would argue that any massive project would require an unprecedented volume of construction material and debris that can only be derived by fuelling, somehow, an unprecedented building spree that is most unwanted, considering that at present there are more than 70,000 vacant dwellings. Again who will supervise the infill process? Cases of careless building practices particularly in the Sliema /St Julian’s area have left us with ugly memories of practices causing  poor environmental and human health. The implications in terms of the resultant particulate matter levels in ambient air, for example, white and black dusts, could be significant.

Yet not all is doom and gloom as the studies commissioned by MEPA conclude that land reclamation would have positive economic results for the country if the land is used commercially. With hindsight there was no significant attempt by the Gonzi administration to tap the economic potential of land reclamation so when this subject was raised again in the 2014 budget speech there was a sense of deja vu. Yet the call for expression of interest issued last year was successful, resulting in 21 applications and the government is expected to announce the winning project next year. Naturally one has to be cautious and not approve several land reclamation permits simultaneously, as these may lead to a proliferation of building mania leading to a chaotic urbanization of the coast line with multiple artificial islands to the detriment of the already mentioned disruption of the underwater ecosystem, particularly the protected Posidonia meadows.

In conclusion in the past 25 years, the PN governments have relied on the construction industry to kick-start the economy by expanding development zones and relaxing building heights, particularly at Tigne Point, but never sanctioned land reclamation. Now the Labour government seems to have its sights fixed straight towards the sea. So as to solve the need for elbow room in a crowded island can a compromise be found to protect the habitat while adding more open spaces and creating new jobs? Perhaps the promised reform of MEPA by its division and branching into an independent environment arm manned by qualified staff can be an effective solution – only thus can the Posidonia colony in the clear blue waters breathe a sigh of relief. Wishing a merry Christmas to all.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today, 19th Decemeber, 2014.