PKF greets a land reclamation dream

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today 21 December 2018

During a business trip to Singapore, I was fascinated by success in many sectors notwithstanding the fact that the country possesses no mineral wealth. Singapore is roughly twice the size of Malta but houses over six million citizens in a densely populated area. Singapore has a GDP per capita of $93,900, while in Malta, the GDP per capita is nearly half.

It comes as no surprise that over past decades Singapore has invested heavily in land reclamation including a massive Freeport and construction of international airports. So finally, Malta is contemplating going the same route by using the massive tonnage of debris expected to be generated from the Gozo tunnel towards land reclamation.

As can be expected, the subject of land reclamation is resisted by environmentalists and NGOs who militate against it saying such measures will upset the ecological, scientific and archaeological habitat amid other cultural values. Meanwhile, it follows that due to Malta’s size, its growing population density and burgeoning tourist sector any political announcements to encourage land reclamation are welcomed by property magnates.

Others claim top priority should be given to social housing. Of course, this is what the Housing Authority is doing – that is inviting developers to come forward to form a joint venture to finance the redevelopment and rehabilitation of derelict or vacant houses.

This is a noble cause but in the meantime, in my opinion, there is nothing to stop us from attracting new investment to emulate Singapore’s success in land reclamation. Let us stop and ponder how Malta and its geology as an island with relatively soft rock have over millennia suffered continuous erosion by mother nature.

“Being contrite, we need more elbow room to be able to enjoy spatial living conditions”

It is true that as an over-populated island, unfortunately not blessed with natural resources such as minerals, mountains or rivers, we survived handsomely and developed our skills and productive abilities to finely balance our trade balances. Currently, with low unemployment, politicians remind us that we rank as the fastest growing economy in the EU. Being contrite, we need more elbow room to be able to enjoy spatial living conditions.

Back to the subject of land reclamation, on visiting the Planning Authority website, one reads that in the past it commissioned two major studies on the subject. One dates back to 2005, which explored the idea of disposing construction waste at sea, and another feasibility study was completed in 2007 in two specific areas.

This resistance to large scale reclamation may be due to the fact that there was no foresight about a Gozo tunnel/bridge to be commissioned, even though this was mooted in each election manifesto. Unsurprisingly, there was some sympathy from PA towards a particular site of the coastline near Qalet Marku.

If it were not for the rich habitat of seagrass, one can use building debris from both the DB project and the Gozo tunnel to create a cluster of islands. Unofficially, we heard that an ERA study prefers the site at Xaghjra since the Qalet Marku site features seagrass listed as a protected habitat by EU. Naturally, the construction lobby is very much in favour of large scale land reclamation closer to the Madliena golden mile which can yield virgin land for development.

This will inevitably reduce pressure on ODZ use but designs have to blend and respect with sensitivity the aesthetic value and historical significance of the chosen site. Ideally, the Xaghra pristine coastline coincides with a political policy to move tourism to the south. Linking the southern coastline to Smart City and embellishing it with a modern promenade will support multifarious commercial, cultural and recreation activities.

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 weigh the advantages of achieving a better standard of living away from the frenzied high-rise cacophony at Tigne and Paceville environs.

Certainly, land reclamation is not new to the Maltese islands and here I can mention with pride the privatised Freeport terminals in Birzebbuga (employing thousands) and the platform on which the Shanghai Electric power station stands. One remembers with nostalgia how reclamation improved the logistics at Msida.

Originally when the parish church was built it was facing the sea. Really and truly, there will always be an ecological price to pay. The hardest hit, from a purely environmental standpoint, is obviously the seabed. Its integrity in terms of physical characteristics is ruined due to wiping out any biodiversity thriving on a particular site.

The obvious collateral damage to the Posidonia oceanica meadows (seagrass) that lie over large tracts 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.

Also, any illegal dumping of inert waste at sea to build retaining walls for breakwater extensions disturbs the water column, contributing to turbidity. Ecologists warn us that substantial dumping takes ages to settle down as disturbed sediment on the seafloor and unassailably 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 specks of dust produced as a result of heavy machinery to move material – cannot be underestimated.

So now that the Government is keen to issue tenders to excavate a 13-kilometre-long subsea tunnel, evil tongues will start to wax about the sensitive process how to select the preferred bidders. The tunnel is certainly a controversial topic that has long fired the ambition of savvy politicians yet also divided opinions on the justification of its massive cost just to placate a daily hustle of a few thousand commuters.

Alternatively, pundits say commissioning a fleet of fast ferries can instantly solve the connection conundrum. Lest we forget – the country is still stuck in a €6 billion debt mountain. The question, therefore, stands: Is the tunnel a ruse or is it for real? Are foreign investors interested?

If the government has the vision to build a tunnel alongside a reclamation project and triumphs by mollifying opposition from an environmentalist lobby, then that will be the day when Malta can rise like a later-day Phoenix out of the ashes. Exultantly, we deserve the title of a novel ‘Singapore in the Med’.

Merry Christmas to all readers!

George Mangion

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today 21 December 2018
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