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Network News • 29-08-2022

A Singapore in the Med

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 25th August 2022

An ERA spokesperson was recently quoted commenting unfavourably about spoilt ground off Xghajra where construction waste has been deposited since colonial times. Media reports show how unused quarries which take the majority of construction waste are nearing exhaustion and therefore the country has to find ways of addressing this problem.

A major consideration in a latest ERA report was “the avoidance” to landfills of areas claimed to be rich in protected habitats, especially areas which include the priority habitat Posidonia beds. These are protected under EU law due to their crucial importance as the lungs of the Mediterranean Sea.

Labour’s manifesto includes a blanket commitment for land reclamation projects, which is deemed to be “necessary” in an island with limited land. The rumour mill has it that land reclamation will be limited to renewable energy projects, green spaces and public infrastructure.

Cynics question whether this policy will also allow more tourism and real estate development. But while the manifesto refers to projects which benefit the country like renewable energy projects, it falls short of excluding real estate on reclaimed land, which speculators find very lucrative in coastal areas.

A yet unpublished ERA study has identified six potential areas for land reclamation. These include - Mġarr Harbour (Gozo), Buġibba and St Paul’s Bay Waterfront, Qalet Marku, Portomaso to Xgħajra, the spoil ground area off Xgħajra and the Marsaxlokk harbour area. Mother nature may not have intended for Malta to grow an indigenous population as high as 520,000 - and still growing. Studies predict that at this rate of population growth Malta may reach 700,000 by the year 2035.

Realistically for a small island state of 316sq. km with the MTA planning to attract three point three million annual visitors, then it stands to reason to consider extra elbow room. One remembers with nostalgia how reclamation improved the logistics at Msida and old photos remind us how when the parish church was built it was facing the sea.

In the coming years, 15,000 new foreign workers are needed annually. 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 during post Covid, one expects a burgeoning tourist sector.

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 build new stock while financing 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. Singapore has opted for 24 per cent of land reclamation, having a population density of 8,155 people per square kilometre. Notwithstanding this concentration, yet it prides itself of more than 300 parks and four nature reserves. Singaporeans love their trees and almost 40 per cent of the country is covered by greenery (see artificial mushroom trees).

Thus, our population density reaches 1,507 persons/sq. km, compared with the EU average of 117 persons/sq. km. Currently, with low unemployment, politicians daily remind us that we rank as the fastest growing economy in the EU. Being so blessed with economic success, yet we need more elbow room to be able to enjoy spatial living conditions.

Naturally, one meets with a natural resistance by coastal dwellers to any large-scale reclamation since the latter do not wish anything to spoil their pristine views.

This may be understandable, but for the greater good something has to be sacrificed to provide more elbow room. Now that both sides of parliament voted for a Gozo tunnel/metro, these projects will extenuate the problem where to dump inert material.

Last year, the government had identified an offshore belt between 12 and 25 nautical miles as an Exclusive Economic Zone where it intends issuing concessions to private companies for the production of renewable energy, the production and storage of hydrogen, fish farms and even the establishment of “artificial islands”. The belt is massive and incorporates a 900sq. km zone of relatively shallow waters around Hurd’s Bank. Building artificial islands offshore will also form part of our land reclamation dream.

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 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 one can mention with satisfaction, the privatised Freeport terminals in Birzebbuga (employing thousands) and the platform on which the Shanghai Electric power station and Electrogas stands.

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 any particular site. Inevitably there will be collateral damage to the posidonia oceanica meadows (seagrass) that lie over large tracts of seabed at shallow depths around Qalet Marku. This 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.

Voters were promised by the government that it would pursue an ambitious reclamation policy.

If Cabinet approves, then that will be the day when Malta’s foreshore will rise like a latter-day Phoenix out of the ashes.

Author: George Mangion - Senior Partner PKF Malta
Published on Business Today: 25th August 2022
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